Three U.S. Scientists win Nobel Prize for work on circadian rhythms

Published On October 2, 2017 | By Jun Cho | International, News, Sci/Tech

By: Brett McGarry

Whether suffering from jet lag, feeling out of sync working a night shift or hitting the afternoon wave of tiredness, people experience the workings of the internal body clock, also known as the circadian rhythm.

Now three scientists from the United States, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work developing an understanding of the molecular mechanisms that control our internal body clock.

In the 1970s a scientist named Seymour Benzer and his student Ron Konopka demonstrated that mutations in a specific gene, dubbed the “period” gene, interrupted the circadian clock of a fruit fly.

The work of the Nobel winners took up where Benzer left off.

They have shown that the gene is responsible for encoding a protein in the cells of the organism during the night which degrades during the day. This constant loop is partly how the body is able to regulate behavioral and biological functions based on time.

“It was beautiful work. They were among the first to bring biological rhythms from the stages of observation to molecular experimentation,” said Jay C. Dunlap, professor of Molecular and Systems Biology at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine.

Dunlap said it is important to note they were the first to clone the “period” gene.

Hall and Roshbash worked together at Brandeis University in Massachussetts while Young worked independently at Rockefeller University in New York. Both teams published their findings in 1984.

After initial research Young went on to identify another two related clock genes named “timeless” and “doubletime” which have inter-related functions in the complex systems.

Michael W. Young, a joint winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, poses for a portrait in one of his labs at The Rockefeller University in New York, U.S., October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The work of the three scientists paved the way for chronobiology, the study of biological rhythms and cyclical functions, and has led to a deeper understanding of the importance of healthy sleep.

Circadian rhythms dictate physiological events. Compatible events need to be scheduled together. These rhythms keep our various organs and systems coordinated.

“Most people can understand this through jet lag. If you fly from Toronto to Europe, you’re eating food, drinking water and functioning on local time in Europe but your body is still adjusted to Toronto time. These circadian cycles dictate sleep, hunger, sensitivity to pain, body temper, digestion. This is why people feel bad,” Dunlap said.


Circadian rhythms dictate physiological events. According to Eric Bittman, professor of molecular Biology at the University of Massachusetts, compatible events need to be scheduled together. These rhythms keep our various organs and systems coordinated.

“Different organs in the body adjust at different rates and that causes stress in bodily systems. Having an interrupted circadian rhythm can be especially dangerous for people with heart conditions, liver problems, drug addicts, etc.”

Bittman is also excited to see scientists in his field win the award.

“I know them personally and it is exciting to have Nobel recognition in the field. I guess you could say we have skin in the game,” Bittman said.



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