Biological clock discoveries by three Americans earn Nobel prize

STOCKHOLM: Three Americans won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for their discoveries about the body’s biological clock, opening up whole new fields of research and raising awareness about the importance of getting enough sleep.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize for their work on finding genetic mechanisms behind circadian rhythms, which adapt the workings of the body to different phases of the day, influencing sleep, behaviour, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism.

They “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” the Nobel citation said.

“Circadian dysfunction has been linked to sleep disorders, as well as depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive function, memory formation and some neurological diseases,” according to a Nobel background report.

The awardees’ work stems back to 1984, when Rosbash and Hall, both at Brandeis, along with Young isolated the “period gene” in fruit flies. Hall and Rosbash found that a protein encoded by the gene accumulated during the night and degraded during daytime. A decade later, Young discovered another “clock gene.” The work was done using fruit flies.

“I am very pleased for the fruit fly,” Rosbash, a 73-year-old professor at Brandeis University, said. He said he got the call about the award just after 5am.

“When the landline rings at that hour, normally it is because someone died,” he said. “I’m still a little overwhelmed.” But he added “I stand on the shoulders of giants. This is a very humbling award.” Young is at Rockefeller University; Hall formerly was a visiting professor at the University of Maine but said his prize work was done at Brandeis.

Hall, 72, wryly noted that he was already awake when the call about the prize came around 5am because of age-related changes in his own circadian rhythms.