The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017

 

The distinguished award goes to: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, Michael W. Young, for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.

Michael Rosbash: Photo credit: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

 

Jeffrey Hall                                                                 Michael Young

Photo credit: Wikipedia                                        Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Life on Earth is adapted to the rotation of our planet. For many years we have known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal, biological clock that helps them anticipate and adapt to the regular rhythm of the day. But how does this clock actually work? Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings. Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.

 

Nobel winner, Jeffrey C. Hall was born 1945 in New York, USA. He received his doctoral degree in 1971 at the University of Washington in Seattle and was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1971 to 1973. He joined the faculty at Brandeis University in Waltham in 1974. In 2002, he became associated with University of Maine.

 

Nobel winner, Michael Rosbash was born in 1944 in Kansas City, USA. He received his doctoral degree in 1970 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. During the following three years, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Since 1974, he has been on faculty at Brandeis University in Waltham, USA.

 

Nobel winner, Michael W. Young was born in 1949 in Miami, USA. He received his doctoral degree at the University of Texas in Austin in 1975. Between 1975 and 1977, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto. From 1978, he has been on faculty at the Rockefeller University in New York.

 

The earliest recorded account of a circadian process dates from the 4th century BCE, when Androsthenes, a ship captain serving under Alexander the Great, described diurnal leaf movements of the tamarind tree. The observation of a circadian or diurnal process in humans is mentioned in Chinese medical texts dated to around the 13th century, including 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. The first recorded observation of an endogenous circadian oscillation was by the French scientist Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan in 1729. He noted that 24-hour patterns in the movement of the leaves of the plant Mimosa pudica continued even when the plants were kept in constant darkness, in the first experiment to attempt to distinguish an endogenous clock from responses to daily stimuli. In 1896, Patrick and Gilbert observed that during a prolonged period of sleep deprivation, sleepiness increases and decreases with a period of approximately 24 hours. In 1918, J.S. Szymanski showed that animals are capable of maintaining 24-hour activity patterns in the absence of external cues such as light and changes in temperature.

 

In the early 20th century, circadian rhythms were noticed in the rhythmic feeding times of bees. Extensive experiments were done by Auguste Forel, Ingeborg Beling, and Oskar Wahl to see whether this rhythm was due to an endogenous clock. Ron Konopka and Seymour Benzer isolated the first clock mutant in Drosophila in the early 1970s and mapped the “period“ gene, the first discovered genetic determinant of behavioral rhythmicity. Joseph Takahashi discovered the first mammalian circadian clock mutation (clock delta19) using mice in 1994. However, recent studies show that deletion of clock does not lead to a behavioral phenotype (the animals still have normal circadian rhythms), which questions its importance in rhythm generation.

 

The term circadian was coined by Franz Halberg in the 1950s.

 

Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans. With 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. Our well-being is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience “jet lag.“ There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.

 

Most living organisms anticipate and adapt to daily changes in the environment. During the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan studied mimosa plants, and found that the leaves opened towards the sun during daytime and closed at dusk. He wondered what would happen if the plant was placed in constant darkness. He found that independent of daily sunlight the leaves continued to follow their normal daily oscillation. Plants seemed to have their own biological clock. Other researchers found that not only plants, but also animals and humans, have a biological clock that helps to prepare our physiology for the fluctuations of the day. This regular adaptation is referred to as the circadian rhythm, originating from the Latin words circa meaning “around“ and dies meaning “day“. But just how our internal circadian biological clock worked remained a mystery.

 

During the 1970’s, Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka asked whether it would be possible to identify genes that control the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. They demonstrated that mutations in an unknown gene disrupted the circadian clock of flies. They named this gene period. But how could this gene influence the circadian rhythm?

 

This year’s Nobel Laureates, who were also studying fruit flies, aimed to discover how the clock actually works. In 1984, Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, working in close collaboration at Brandeis University in Boston, and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University in New York, succeeded in isolating the period gene. Hall and Rosbash then went on to discover that PER, the protein encoded by period, accumulated during the night and was degraded during the day. Thus, PER protein levels oscillate over a 24-hour cycle, in synchrony with the circadian rhythm. The next key goal was to understand how such circadian oscillations could be generated and sustained. Hall and Rosbash hypothesized that the PER protein blocked the activity of the period gene. They reasoned that by an inhibitory feedback loop, PER protein could prevent its own synthesis and thereby regulate its own level in a continuous, cyclic rhythm. The model was tantalizing, but a few pieces of the puzzle were missing. To block the activity of the period gene, PER protein, which is produced in the cytoplasm, would have to reach the cell nucleus, where the genetic material is located. Hall and Rosbash had shown that PER protein builds up in the nucleus during night, but how did it get there? In 1994 Michael Young discovered a second clock gene, timeless, encoding the TIM protein that was required for a normal circadian rhythm. In elegant work, he showed that when TIM bound to PER, the two proteins were able to enter the cell nucleus where they blocked period gene activity to close the inhibitory feedback loop. Such a regulatory feedback mechanism explained how this oscillation of cellular protein levels emerged, but questions lingered. What controlled the frequency of the oscillations? Michael Young identified yet another gene, double-time, encoding the DBT protein that delayed the accumulation of the PER protein. This provided insight into how an oscillation is adjusted to more closely match a 24-hour cycle. The paradigm-shifting discoveries have established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock. During the following years other molecular components of the clockwork mechanism were elucidated, explaining its stability and function. For example, this year’s laureates identified additional proteins required for the activation of the period gene, as well as for the mechanism by which light can synchronize the clock. The biological clock is involved in many aspects of our complex physiology. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms. A large proportion of our genes are regulated by the biological clock and, consequently, a carefully calibrated circadian rhythm adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.

 

The circadian clock anticipates and adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Our biological clock helps to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone release, blood pressure, and body temperature.

 

Read more about Michael Rosbash

Read more about Jeffrey Hall

Read more about Michael Young

Excellent article: New Yorker

 

Sources: Nobel Foundation: “2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm;“ ScienceDaily, 2 October 2017; Wikipedia

 

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