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American scientists win Nobel in Medicine for decoding body clock

03 October 2017

In the 1970s, the scientist Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka discovered that mutations in the period gene caused disruptions in the circadian clock of flies.

Circadian rhythms tie biological ups and downs in plants and animals to the daily rotation of the Earth.

Monday's award was the first of this year's Nobel Prizes to be announced.

A statement released by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet said, "Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings".

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The work revolves around three genes dubbed "period", "timeless" and "doubletime". They showed that this gene encodes a protein called PER, which accumulates in the cell during the night and degrades during the day.

Michael Rosbash (BS '65), the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and professor of biology at Brandeis University and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The "paradigm-shifting discoveries", as the Nobel citation called them, were that the proteins enter the cell nucleus, where its genes reside, and turn off the DNA that had been busy making them. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms.

He says "If you understand how the normal process works, that gives you a chance, not an inevitability, but a chance to influence the internal workings of the clock and possibly to improve a patient's well-being". Thomas Perlmann, the Nobel Commitee's Secretary, told journalists in Stockholm during a press conference that when he reached Rosbash by phone this morning, the scientist was silent, and then said, "You are kidding me".

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The circadian rhythm is mostly endogenous: it is "performed" and regulated by chemical reactions that occur within the body's cells, using internal cues.

Jeffrey C Hall was born 1945 in NY. He shares the prize with Jeffrey C. Hall, a professor emeritus of biology at Brandeis and former postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, and Michael W. Young, the Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor at Rockefeller University.

The study of circadian rhythms goes back to at least the 18th century, when scientists noticed that certain plants would open their leaves at sunrise and close them at sunset even in the absence of lighting cues. Links have also been discovered revealing that misalignment between our lifestyle and circadian clock are associated with increased risks for a number of diseases.

The Nobel prize committee said their findings had "vast implications for our health and wellbeing".

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If PER is more stable then the clock ticks more slowly, if it is less stable then it runs too fast. Our mood, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism, y all work in a daily rhythm.

American scientists win Nobel in Medicine for decoding body clock