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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.


By Shlomo  Maital


  The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine has been announced.  It is shared between John O’Keefe, American-born scientist at University College, London; and a husband and wife team, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.

    Here is what they discovered:

    O’Keefe: How do we know where we are? How can we find the way from one place to another? And how can we store this information in such a way that we can immediately find the way the next time we trace the same path? This year´s Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an “inner GPS” in the brain that makes it possible to orient ourselves in space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function.    In 1971, John O´Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system. He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places. O´Keefe concluded that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

    In other words:  many many centuries before GPS technology was invented,  our BRAINS developed their own internal GPS mapping system.  Amazing? 

    Moser’s:  More than three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system. They identified another type of nerve cell, which they called “grid cells”, that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

     The discoveries of John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries – how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?

     For those who are religious and believe in the Creator,  this amazing capability of the brain to orient us using specialized brain cells,  and creating grids, GPS coordinates and maps,  is a fine example of the miraculous nature of the human brain.  Congratulations to these scientists for helping us understand how this works!


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital