Nobel Prize: Tick Tock, Body Clock

10 October 2017

Interview with

Ned Hoyle, Laboratory of Molecular Biology

The 2017 Nobel Prizes have now been announced. The first to be made public was for Physiology or Medicine, which went to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, who sussed out how the “body clock” works. “Clock doc” Ned Hoyle researches this subject himself at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and he took the time to take us through it...

Ned - Animals, plants, some fungi, and even bacteria possess a 24 hour timer which is hardwired into their biology. This allows them to pursue a lifestyle which reflects a day/night cycle of our planet. This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is for pioneering work in fruit flies. The scientists identified the genetic behind how organisms can keep to a daily rhythm. Hall, Rosbash and Young didn’t just identify the genes involved, which was an arduous task at the time taking several years, but they also figured out how they act to measure time.

The genes involved in the biological clock can turn themselves on and off in a process known as negative feedback. The activity of period, the first gene they identified, rises during the night until dawn when it switches itself off. During the day levels of period fall until it switches itself back on again, beginning the cycle again. It’s this on/off switching repeating itself each day which is the fundamental basis of daily biological clocks.

This elegant mechanism has held true not only for flies, but also for mammals, plants, and even fungi. Later research has shown that a large part of human physiology is affected by daily biological timekeeping including hormones, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism. Understanding of biological timekeeping has impacts upon human health for example, shift work where our internal clocks are misaligned with the day/night cycle is a risk factor for a number of diseases including type 2 diabetes and cancer. With greater knowledge of our body clock we might one day mitigate these harmful effects or at least make more informed choices about our lifestyle.

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