Nobel for Physiology: How We Rise and Shine!

 By Shlomo Maital


     The Nobel Prize season is upon us! The first prize, for physiology or medicine, was awarded to three researchers who discovered how living things tell the difference between night and day (the 24-hour body clock):

     According to the Nobel committee’s citation, Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young were recognised for their discoveries explaining “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”   The team identified a gene within fruit flies that controls the creatures’ daily rhythm, known as the “period” gene. This gene encodes a protein within the cell during the night which then degrades during the day.

   According to Paul Nurse, at the British Crick Institute:

   “Every living organism on this planet responds to the sun ….   All plant and animal behaviour is determined by the light-dark cycle. We on this planet are slaves to the sun. The circadian clock is embedded in our mechanisms of working, our metabolism, it’s embedded everywhere, it’s a real core feature for understanding life.”

      This Nobel Prize highlights the competitive nature of science:

“While all three laboured to isolate the period gene, publishing was something of a race. While Hall and Rosbash collaborated, Young was working on the puzzle independently. Both teams reported their findings in 1984.”

      Experts tell us that it is wise to rise and retire at the same time each day, to regulate our biological clock. I like to rise at 5 a.m.   Now I know that somewhere, a gene is turning on a protein that gets me going.   The experts say, “Our [internal] timer is constantly struggling to reset to what environment people are exposed to. If you shift your clock every week by six hours or three hours, that puts an enormous pressure on your body.”

What kind of personality does it take to win a Nobel? Well – crazy, eccentric, nose-to-the-grindwheel, obsessive-compulsive, super-nice? Yes, all of the above.

   Bambos Kyriacou, professor of behavioural genetics at the University of Leicester, who is friends with all three winners and a former colleague of two, said the trio were very different people. “Jeff [Hall] is eccentric … brilliant but eccentric,” he said. “Michael [Rosbash], there is no stopping him – he is just going 100%, he will die with his boots on in the lab, and Michael Young is the most charming, nicest one of them because he is polite and pleasant, whereas the other two aren’t like that, they are just crazy,” Kyriacou added.