Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for the Discovery of How Our Cells Track Time

Three researchers representing two independent studies won this year's Nobel prize after detailing the cellular impact of the circadian rhythm on living organisms.

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for the Discovery of How Our Cells Track Time
Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media

A group of American biological researchers earned the Nobel prize in medicine for detailing exactly how the body's 'clock' functions. 

The Nobel committee awarded Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young for explaining "how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions." In short, the men figured out exactly how the body's molecules operate during circadian rhythms. 

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In humans, the circadian rhythms regulate when we sleep, eat, release hormones, and raise/lower our blood pressure. Jetlag, insomnia, working late shifts, and all-nighters can disrupt our natural cycles. Countless studies have been made on how to 'reset' a body's natural rhythm, but none have effectively detailed what our biological clock does at the molecular level. 

Studying these rhythms first started in 1729 when a French astronomer noted that a plant opened and closed its leaves on a 24-hour cyclical period. He noted that the flower still opened even when the plant stayed in perpetual darkness.

Roughly 250 years later, the biological change finally got a name. A study in the 1960s looked at the fruit fly Drosophila. That study mapped the fly's genes, discovering that the same gene was responsible for lengthening and shortening the fly's circadian rhythm. Hall, Rosbash and Young set out to study and ultimately clone the "period" gene. 

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for the Discovery of How Our Cells Track Time
When the period gene is active, mRNA is made and gets transferred to the cell's cytoplasm. This helps produce the PER protein. Source: Nobel Prize

The researchers were shocked to get the call that they'd won. 

Robash told the Guardian that he responded with "You are kidding me." Hall gave a similar reaction. "I said, 'is this a prank?'"

Hall and Rosbash collaborated on their work, while Young worked on an independent study. It became a race to see who could publish their studies first. Both teams reported their results in 1984. Now all three men are recognized with the scientific community's highest honor. 

"It was very unpleasant competition in the early 80s, although we settled down. I think it’s possible we just started to act more like grown-ups because we got older," said Hall.

Hall and Rosbash continued their studies on the gene, discovering that it will rise and fall throughout the day. Young found another gene which he dubbed "timeless," that helped feed into the findings of Hall and Rosbash. 

In their findings, the Nobel committee said the teams "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."

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for the Discovery of How Our Cells Track Time
An illustration of the average circadian rhythm for humans. Source: Nobel Prize

The trio's research compounds previous research on cellular activity. Sir Paul Nurse shared the Nobel prize in 2001 and specializes in the cell cycle. He said studying circadian rhythms helps everyone understand how all living beings function. 

"Every living organism on this planet responds to the sun," he said. "All plant and animal behavior is determined by the light-dark cycle. We on this planet are slaves to the sun. The circadian clock is embedded in our mechanisms of working, our metabolism, it’s embedded everywhere, it’s a real core feature for understanding life."

Last year's Nobel prize in physiology and medicine went to Yoshinori Ohsumi and his work on cellular autophagy -- how cells 'eat' themselves.

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