The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm
Life on Earth is adapted to the rotation of our planet. For many years we have known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal, biological clock that helps them anticipate and adapt to the regular rhythm of the day. But how does this clock actually work? Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings. Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.
Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.
With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience “jet lag”. There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.
Our Inner Clock
Most living organisms anticipate and adapt to daily changes in the environment. During the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan studied mimosa plants, and found that the leaves opened towards the sun during daytime and closed at dusk. He wondered what would happen if the plant was placed in constant darkness. He found that independent of daily sunlight the leaves continued to follow their normal daily oscillation. Plants seemed to have their own biological clock.
Other researchers found that not only plants, but also animals and humans, have a biological clock that helps to prepare our physiology for the fluctuations of the day. This regular adaptation is referred to as the circadian rhythm, originating from the Latin words circa meaning “around” and dies meaning “day”. But just how our internal circadian biological clock worked remained a mystery.
READ MICHAEL ROSBASH INTERVIEW AS HE WAS INFORMED ABOUT BEING A WINNER
Telephone interview with Michael Rosbash following the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2 October 2017. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
[Michael Rosbash]: Hello
[Adam Smith]: Hello may I speak to Michael Rosbash please?
MR: You’re speaking to him.
AS: Thank you very much. My name is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize. So I suppose it’s funny in a way that a prize for working out the molecular mechanisms of the circadian rhythms is announced in a way that disrupts your own sleep cycle.
MR: Indeed. [Laughs] Ironic, yes. I hadn’t thought about that, I must confess, but absolutely, yes.
AS: How did you hear the news?
MR: The phone on the night table by my bed woke me out of a deep sleep. And the gentleman Thomas Perlmann, yes, he told me the news. And I was shocked, breathless really. Literally. My wife said, “Start breathing.”
AS: In a way this is something that everyone takes for granted, their adaptation to night and day. But it’s sort of the original adaptation to environmental influence, isn’t it?
MR: It is, it is. Before the atmosphere has its current constitution and before nutrition was anything like it is today, the earth rotated on its axis and the light dark cycle impinged on the beginnings of life, yes.
AS: And I suppose it’s hard for people to imagine how different it was 30 years ago when you were starting this work, that you were real pioneers in linking genes to behaviour.
MR: Right, it’s true, it’s true. We didn’t think of ourselves as that, you know everybody…There’s an element of craft in the work, you know, we’re putting one foot in front of the other. Trying to get more experiments to work than fail but in hindsight, yes, there’s some truth in that.
AS: And the prize is also a celebration, I suppose, of your close working relationship with Jeffrey Hall.
MR: It is, it is. Yes. Long, long, long partnership.
AS: What made you such a strong team?
MR: We were very, we had very…Two things, we were very good friends personally, before in fact we started to work together. And secondly we had complimentary skillsets.
AS: I gather he’s a bit of a maverick, riding Harley-Davidsons and the like.
MR: That sort of thing yes. And the like. Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Very British and very appropriate.
AS: Will we look forward to welcoming you to Stockholm in December?
MR: Of course you will.
AS: Great, well enjoy your day and thank you for speaking to us.
MR: Thank you very much.
AS: Thank you.
MR: Bye bye.
Source: Nobel Prize