I am very pleased for the fruit fly: Nobel winner Michael Rosbash

Top honour: Michael Rosbash on the phone after learning he is one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday.

Top honour: Michael Rosbash on the phone after learning he is one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Humble insect receives praise from Michael Rosbach, one of the scientists to win the medicine Nobel

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. The work was done using fruit flies.

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

“When the landline rings at that hour, normally it is because someone died,” he said. “I’m still a little overwhelmed.”

He added, “I stand on the shoulders of giants. This is a very humbling award.”

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

The scientists “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.

Mr. Hall, 72, wryly noted that he was already awake when he received the call from Sweden about his Nobel because of changes in his circadian rhythm as he has grown older. “I said ‘Is this a prank?’ I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t expect it,” Mr. Hall recounted, speaking from his home in rural Cambridge, Maine.

Sleep hygiene

The winners have raised “awareness of the importance of a proper sleep hygiene” said Juleen Zierath of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which chooses the laureates. Carlos Ibanez, another assembly member, said the research was important in understanding how humans adapt to shift work. Michael Hastings, a scientist at the U.K. Medical Research Council, said the discoveries had opened up a whole new field of study for biology and medicine.

“Until then, the body clock was viewed as a sort of black box,” said Mr. Hastings.

“We knew nothing about its operation. But what they did was get the genes that made the body clock, and once you’ve got the genes, you can take the field wherever you want to.”

“Our well-being is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience ‘jet lag’,” the Nobel statement said. “There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner time keeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.”

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 4:20:49 PM |

Next Story