STOCKHOLM: US geneticists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Medicine Prize Monday for shedding light on the biological clock that governs the sleep-wake cycles of most living things.
The team’s work revealed the role of genes in setting the “circadian clock” which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones, and body temperature, the Nobel Assembly said.
“Their discoveries explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”
All life on Earth is tuned to the rotation of our planet. Scientists have long known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal timekeeper that helps them anticipate and adapt to the rhythm of the day.
Hall, 72, Rosbash, 73, and Young, 68, “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” the Nobel jury said.
They identified genes that regulate the clock, and the mechanism by which light can synchronise it.
Rosbash told Swedish Radio he was rattled when the committee’s call woke him from his sleep at 5:10 am.
“I was called on the landline next to my bed which never rings unless someone has died or something of this magnitude happens,” he recounted. “I was restless, both literally and figuratively. My wife said: ‘Please start to breathe’.”
The circadian clock is what causes jetlag — what happens when our internal clock and external environment move out of sync as we change time zones.
It also regulates sleep, which is critical for normal brain function. Circadian dysfunction has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive function, memory formation and some neurological diseases.
Improve human health
Studies have indicated that a chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and circadian clock — irregular shift work for example — may be associated with an increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders and inflammation.
Scientists are working hard on methods to alter the rhythm of errant clocks as a means to “improve human health,” said the Nobel medicine prize team.
Using the fruit fly as a model organism, this year’s laureates isolated a gene that controls the daily biological rhythm, called the period gene.
“They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night and is then degraded during the day,” the Nobel team said.
“Subsequently they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.”
The trio will share the prize sum of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million or 937,000 euros).
“Just about every facet of our body changes predictably over the course of the day and night and these changes are driven by this internal timing mechanism,” Michael Hastings of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge told AFP.
“Every dimension of our health, every dimension of our personality or reactions to medicines, our reactions to disease are variable and are on the very precise programme set by this internal body clock.”
The prize is traditionally the first Nobel medicine prize to be announced. On Tuesday, the physics prize laureates will be revealed, followed by those for chemistry on Wednesday.
The literature prize will be announced on Thursday, the peace prize on Friday, and the economics prize will wrap things up on Monday, October 9.
Literature, peace prizes
There are no shortlists for the Nobel medicine prize and the committees are tightlipped ahead of the announcements, sparking rampant speculation.
For the literature prize, the Swedish Academy is expected to turn the page on last year’s surprise choice of US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, which divided the literary world.
This year it is expected to go for a more conservative pick, with the same names recurring in the speculation as in previous years: Italy’s Claudio Magris, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, Syrian poet Adonis, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo of the US, Israel’s Amos Oz and Haruki Murakami of Japan.
A newcomer dominating the rumour mill is Chinese novelist Yan Lianke.
As for the Nobel peace prize — the only Nobel to be awarded in Oslo — a total of 318 nominations have been submitted this year.
Last year, it went to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to bring peace to a country ravaged by a half-century of conflict.
Anti-nuclear efforts could take the prize this year, some have suggested. Tensions have escalated between Washington and Pyongyang after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, and there is growing uncertainty over the Iran deal, which US President Donald Trump has threatened to tear up.
Two key orchestrators of that accord, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, are seen as strong contenders by the head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Henrik Urdal.
Others believed to be on the list include Syria’s White Helmets rescue service, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Edward Snowden, who revealed the scope of America’s NSA electronic surveillance programme. – Agencies