It’s that time of year again: the Nobel Prize award announcements are taking place, beginning with Physiology or Medicine. This year’s prestigious medallion is shared between three renowned researchers: Jeffrey Hall, Michael Young, and Michael Rosbash, who are all American chronobiologists.
As their unusual job titles suggest, the three winners deal with biological time and the internal clocks that regulate our entire lives. Nothing short of pioneers in this relatively new field of research, the Nobel Committee concluded that “their discoveries explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”
The crux of their work involved the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, a useful genetic proxy to humans. They successfully managed to isolate a gene that controls the biological clock of said fly and found out exactly how it measures time.
This gene encodes a protein that builds up overnight. During the day, this protein decays. It is in this cycle of accumulation and degradation that the fly “knows” when it should be awake and when it should sleep. It was later shown that this mechanism of so-called “circadian rhythm” operates in humans.
Our biological clock affects everything. It helps to explain why some people are better at dealing with jet lag than others, and why some people are more biased towards earlier mornings or later evenings.
Considering that millions around the world are suffering from health-threatening sleep deprivation, this research is nothing short of groundbreaking. Some of the findings, for example, elucidated on how mutations in biological clock genes can cause someone’s perception of time, and that when they should be awake and asleep can shift.
“We know that most of our cells have this clock and we know that there’s a central clock in the brain that controls the rhythm, and later we found it in some other organs,” Anna Wedell, the Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, said at the ceremony.
“But it’s the mechanism that these three have described: an autoregulatory, self-sustained, inhibitory feedback loop.”
Astronomers deal with the tick-tock rhythm of the order of planets around stars, but these three prizewinners have uncovered details of the rhythm of life.
As ever, the award-winners were left in a state of shock and awe the moment they were told they had won. The prize announcer in Stockholm said that when he told Rosbash shortly before the ceremony began, “he first went silent, and then he said: ‘You are kidding me.’”
All three will split the international prestige and the monetary prize of $970,000 equally. Unlike last year, the announcement ceremony did not involve a creative use of pastries to explain the science behind the awards.