From Fruit Flies to Nobel Prize: The Circadian Rhythm Story

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A brief tale

When I was 10 years old, my father took me on an errand. One of the stops we made was at a small decrepit watch repair shop. The old man behind the counter was bent and wizened. He had what I thought was a funny magnifying glass stuck in one eye (I still wonder how he managed to keep it from falling off). He barely looked up as he extended his hand to take my father’s ailing watch. He opened the back, tapped on the mechanism, and announced his diagnosis. “Schmutz!” he exclaimed with a mixture of disgust and reproof (schmutz means dirt in Yiddish).

What I left out last time I wrote about the clock

I wrote an article on the biological clock a while back. After I published it, I had a nagging feeling that I was like that watch repairman of my childhood. I described in the article how light triggers electrical impulses that get transmitted via the optic nerve to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and from there to the pineal gland which, in turn, controls the secretion of the hormone melatonin. What I described was the visible anatomical and physiological machinery, the equivalent of the “thing” in the watch, but I failed to describe how “the thing” actually works. That answer was provided by the detailed work of the newly anointed Nobel laureates and that wonderful story is the subject of today’s post.

The story of a discovery

Seymour Benzer was the physicist who “discovered” the budding new field of molecular genetics — it was love at first sight. He was convinced that genes control behavior, pretty controversial in those days, and that by introducing mutations that resulted in abnormal behavior, he could make the connection between specific genes and the normal behaviors they control.

Closing the loop

Enter the third winner of the trio that won the Nobel. Michael Young, working independently at Rockefeller University in New York, was also interested in the per gene and the circadian rhythm of Drosophila. He and his research group solved the problem that we highlighted before: How the PER protein could be primarily in the nucleus when it was generated in the cytoplasm.

Why is this discovery so important?

An obvious reason why this discovery is so important is that understanding the mechanism of sleep/wake cycles will allow us to understand and correct abnormalities in the cycle. Insomniacs have a vital interest in that, as are the millions of people who work the night shifts or other irregular schedules. Aging people who are well acquainted with weird patterns of sleep, waking up in the wee hours of the night and feeling sleepy in the middle of the day, will also benefit. So will anybody who flies and has experienced jet lag, an annoying phenomenon related to the function of our biologic clock.

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