The Time Keepers
(October 2nd, 2017) The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.
Most living organisms anticipate and adapt to daily changes in the environment. During the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan studied mimosa plants, and found that the leaves opened towards the sun during daytime and closed at dusk. He wondered what would happen if the plant was placed in constant darkness. He found that independent of daily sunlight the leaves continued to follow their normal daily oscillation. Plants seemed to have their own biological clock.
Other researchers found that not only plants, but also animals and humans, have a biological clock that helps to prepare our physiology for the fluctuations of the day. This regular adaptation is referred to as the circadian rhythm, originating from the Latin words circa meaning "around" and dies meaning "day". But just how our internal circadian biological clock worked remained a mystery.
During the 1970's, Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka asked whether it would be possible to identify genes that control the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. They demonstrated that mutations in an unknown gene disrupted the circadian clock of flies. They named this gene period. But how could this gene influence the circadian rhythm?
This year's Nobel Laureates, who were also studying fruit flies, aimed to discover how the clock actually works. In 1984, Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, working in close collaboration at Brandeis University in Boston, and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University in New York, succeeded in isolating the period gene. Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash then went on to discover that PER, the protein encoded by period, accumulated during the night and was degraded during the day. Thus, PER protein levels oscillate over a 24-hour cycle, in synchrony with the circadian rhythm.
The next key goal was to understand how such circadian oscillations could be generated and sustained. Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash hypothesised that the PER protein blocked the activity of the period gene. They reasoned that by an inhibitory feedback loop, PER protein could prevent its own synthesis and thereby regulate its own level in a continuous, cyclic rhythm.
The model was tantalising, but a few pieces of the puzzle were missing. To block the activity of the period gene, PER protein, which is produced in the cytoplasm, would have to reach the cell nucleus. Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash had shown that PER protein builds up in the nucleus during night, but how did it get there? In 1994 Michael Young discovered a second clock gene, timeless, encoding the TIM protein that was required for a normal circadian rhythm. In elegant work, he showed that when TIM bound to PER, the two proteins were able to enter the cell nucleus where they blocked period gene activity to close the inhibitory feedback loop.
Such a regulatory feedback mechanism explained how this oscillation of cellular protein levels emerged, but questions lingered. What controlled the frequency of the oscillations? Michael Young identified yet another gene, doubletime, encoding the DBT protein that delayed the accumulation of the PER protein. This provided insight into how an oscillation is adjusted to more closely match a 24-hour cycle.
The paradigm-shifting discoveries by the laureates established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock. During the following years other molecular components of the clockwork mechanism were elucidated, explaining its stability and function. For example, this year's laureates identified additional proteins required for the activation of the period gene, as well as for the mechanism by which light can synchronise the clock.
The biological clock is involved in many aspects of our complex physiology. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms. A large proportion of our genes are regulated by the biological clock and, consequently, a carefully calibrated circadian rhythm adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.
Adapted from Nobelprize.org