Gene of the month - Insomniac
As you might have guessed from the name, Insomniac is a gene involved in sleep, and was first discovered in 2011 when researchers screened more than 20,000 fruit flies which normally had regular sleep patterns to find mutants who had problems flitting off to the Land of Nod.
Lazy normal fruit flies sleep for an average of about 15 hours out of every 24, but flies with an Insomniac mutation only manage about 5 hours of shut-eye per day. The gene is usually active in the fly’s nerve cells, and seems to be involved in breaking down certain proteins.
Humans spend around a third of our entire lives asleep, and sleep deprivation and chronic insomnia can have severe impacts on health and wellbeing. However, the exact biological function of sleep is still not fully understood, and although Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young have just won this year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their work on circadian rhythms - the internal body clock - we still don’t fully understand the genes and molecules that control sleep.
Humans and other mammals also have versions of Insomniac, which are found at the connections between nerve cells, known as synapses. Earlier this year, researchers in New York discovered that two different mammalian versions of Insomniac can compensate for the missing insect version in mutant fruit flies, suggesting they probably help to send us drifting off in the same way the original Insomniac gene works in flies.
Sleep problems are common in neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorders, so unpicking the molecular pathways around Insomniac might reveal more about the connections between sleep, brain function and disease. Something to mull over when you’re wide awake in the wee small hours, anyway.