- Unsplash / Neil Bates
Our internal clocks determine nearly every biological process in our bodies, from sleeping, to eating, to our blood pressure.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2017 has just been awarded to the three scientists – Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young – who uncovered certain molecular mechanisms for these body clocks, or “circadian rhythms.”
The winners were announced at the Nobel Forum at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. The scientists will share the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (£8.23m) and will each receive a medal engraved with their name.
According to the Nobel Prize committee, they were awarded the prize for their scientific advancements towards understanding “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 2, 2017
The Earth is always rotating, so it makes sense that animals and plants have evolved with the regular rhythm of days.
Hall, Rosbash, and Young furthered research in this area by isolating a gene from a fruit fly that controls a normal daily biological rhythm.
They showed that the gene code had instructions to make a particular protein, called PER. PER builds up in living cells during the night, then disappears throughout the day. This showed that PER protein levels oscillated over a 24-hour cycle. They also identified other protein components which help sustain the cell’s internal clockwork.
This discovery was made in 1990, and further research over the years since has shown that biological clocks function in the same way across many other lifeforms, including humans.
If our social clocks don’t align with our biological clocks, this can wreak havoc on our health. For example, we experience jet lag when flying long distances, we can feel groggy when the clocks go forward, and can even throw ourselves out of whack if we stay up late binge-watching TV shows.
This is because our circadian rhythms have adapted to the different phases of the day, and regulate our hormones, behaviour, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism to keep in sync. Prolonged misalignment of these things, such as if we stay up late all the time, can mean we have a higher chance of developing various diseases, like diabetes and cancer.