2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine awarded to circadian rhythms scientists

Noella Chye 7 October 2017

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to three American researchers, Jeffrey Hall from the University of Maine, Michael Rosbash from Brandeis University, and Michael Young from Rockefeller University for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm earlier today.

Life functions according to the rhythms of the Earth's rotation — we are awake for the sixteen hours of light every day, for example, and asleep for just about eight (or so we hope) when it is darker, because of the complex processes of circadian rhythms and sleep homeostasis which our bodies have evolved to parallel the daily light-dark cycle of our external environment.

For years now, we have known that there exists in our bodies and those of other living organisms an internal clock which carries out three steps in order: first, detecting changes in our external environment, then organising and timing our bodily processes accordingly, and afterwards using mechanisms such as timed hormone releases to regulate them.

Yet there remained unanswered the question of how plants, animals and humans detect, then adapt, their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth's revolutions.

Hall, Rosbash and Young discovered exactly that. Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year's Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, who shared the Nobel prize in 2001 for research on the cell cycle, spoke to the Guardian about why the work deserved the prize. 

'It’s important for the basic understanding of life. Every living organism on this planet responds to the sun. All plant and also animal behaviour 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.

'There’s a second reason. We are increasingly becoming aware that there are implications for human disease. With the modern technological age we get more and more divorced from the circadian rhythm, as we are able to travel across time zones and disturb our circadian rhythm. We can now live in light-dark regimes that are nothing to do with the circadian rhythm. This is leading to conditions like jet lag which are disturbing and may in turn also lead to other consequences that we don’t fully understand about the human condition.

One Nobel committee member described the discovery as one of 'a fundamental mechanism underlying very important aspects of physiology: how our cells can keep time.'

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is the first of six prizes awarded by the committee annually. Winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry and Literature will be announced tomorrow on October 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively. The Nobel Peace Prize winner will be announced on October 6th, and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel on October 7th.