Circadian rhythm: the Nobel Prize laureates

As this Sunday approaches, we have been thinking about how the clock change may affect us. Fortunately, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was presented this October to scientists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for their discovery of the molecular mechanics that control circadian rhythms, which sounds like it should shed some light on the time change!

But before we take a look at what they discovered, just what is a circadian rhythm? A circadian rhythm is a cycle of built-in biological processes that occur in roughly 24 hours. The word comes from the Latin ‘circa’ (about) and ‘diem’ (the day). This rhythm affects your sleep pattern, behaviour, temperature, hormone levels and various other functions. This is why one experiences ‘jet lag’, as the environmental inputs you experience in a different time zone are out of sync with your usual rhythms and your body has to adjust to the new cycle of light, temperature and sound etc.

There has been further research that suggests disrupting your natural circadian rhythm may have serious ramifications for your health, although these studies are still very much in their infancy.

So what did the three scientists discover to win a Nobel Prize? They were on a mission to isolate the gene responsible for controlling our normal daily biological rhythm so they could find out how we – and plants and animals – are able to adjust when presented with different sensory information. Once they had identified the gene, they then set about finding out what happened to it over time. The gene (named period) encoded a protein (named PER) that appeared to accumulate overnight and degrade during the day. They hypothesised that the PER protein blocked the period gene from being active and reasoned that the PER protein could prevent its own synthesis and thereby regulate its own level in a continuous, cyclic rhythm.

So, in a nutshell, they worked out how the gene works to regulate circadian rhythms and showed how it can adapt to changing sensory data.

While we may not understand all of the more technical points of the Nobel-winning team’s work, we are pleased that they are making big leaps in explaining why things happen the way they do and the science of sleep.

With all of this in mind, we hope that you’ll take care of your own circadian rhythm from now on and try not to mess around with it too much.

Sleep well!

Rosie Laughton-Paxton

Rosie Laughton-Paxton

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