The Findings Of The 2017 Nobel Prize Winners In Physiology May Lead To Health Benefits

Exhibit with portraits and names of past and present Nobel Prize winners in the biological sciences

by Richard Cameron


Nobel Prize Winners for 2017 and their insight on how genes effect the biological clock

For years, scientists have argued that humans and animals have internal biological clocks that regulate important functions, particularly sleep and that these clocks also affect brain patterns, glandular activity and other organs of the body.

The reality of this was generally accepted in the scientific community, but the mechanism of how the bio-rhythms operated at the cellular level was not fully understood.

photo collage of Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young (L-R), the three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

Yesterday’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology, Doctors Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, received the award for their efforts in expanding our knowledge – in the words of the Nobel committee, explaining “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”

The focus of their research was the ubiquitous, household variety fruit fly – the common fruit fly, or as they are known to scientists, Drosophila melanogaster.  The three examined the fruit fly from the aspect of how, at the molecular level, particular genes encoded proteins which amassed in the cells of the insect nocturnally – but dissipated during the hours of daylight and how this routine affects the subject being in macro.

The three researchers working in concert, made significant progress in discovering what controls the biological clocks of both humans, animals and other multi-cellular organisms – such as in this case, the common fruit fly. 

close up photo of the common fruit fly sitting atop an orange

The prize committee, summed up their view of the research in these terms:

“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.”

The particular gene the research team examined in detail, is named “period”.  It had been the subject of earlier examination by Seymour Benzer.  Hall, Robash and Young credit that gene with controlling circadian rhythms, which are what scientists define as 24 hour “oscillations” or cycles that control a variety of activities and functioning of humans, insects and animals – and even plants. 

In fact, diurnal rhythms have been the subject of observation and study for centuries. The Chinese began documenting their investigations of the subject, as far back as the 13th Century, in journals such as the “Noon and Midnight Manual and the Mnemonic Rhyme to Aid in the Selection of Acu-points According to the Diurnal Cycle, the Day of the Month and the Season of the Year.”

chart that outlines the known functioning of the human biological clock

Bio-rhythms have a wide ranging effect on humans and animals, governing important internal processes such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, mental alertness, reaction time, hormones, metabolism – and what is being seen ever increasingly as a key to physical health – the quantity and quality of sleep

If you have ever done an internet search on the topic of sleeping disorders, much of the existing science in that regard, centered around the contributions of the the three Nobel Prize winners, all of whom have been working in the field of biology and genetics since the mid-70s.

Their research centers around the activity of proteins, how these proteins interact together to influence the function of the period gene. The gene itself, the men learned, acts as an internal timekeeper.  The existence of such a timekeeper has been long suspected, but the mechanism behind it was shrouded in some mystery. 

The value in the findings of Hall, Rosbash and Young, in the estimation of the Nobel committee, is in the promise of developing solutions to altered patterns caused by the effects of lifestyle factors like jet lag and work during periods of darkness, like second and third shifts that misalign and disrupt the internal timekeeper.

Summing up the views of the Nobel panel, were the comments of Dr. Frank A.J.L. Scheer, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital:

“The field had long been speculating on this Nobel Prize. This is great recognition for the field of circadian rhythms that are intimately linked to our health and disease, including diabetes, obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

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