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You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, the built-in rhythms that control life cycles of nearly all living things. Circadian rhythms are normally in tune with the rotation of the Earth, causing us to feel sleepy at night when the Earth faces away from the sun. In humans, these rhythms are sometimes called our “biological clock” because they help dictate daily routines of eating, body temperature, and most importantly, sleeping.
While circadian rhythms are often discussed in relation to sleep cycles, the exact biological mechanism underlying these rhythms has for years been a mystery. Until now, that is.
A team of three scientists were recently awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the genetic basis for our internal circadian rhythm and opening the doors for new therapies for sleep issues.
The award was shared by Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University and Michael Young from The Rockefeller University. The trio studied the genetic makeup of fruit flies and discovered a gene which causes a protein to accumulate inside cells during the day and dissipate at night. This gene is believed to be the true “biological clock” that scientists have searched for since the discovery of circadian rhythms. According to a Nobel Prize organization press release, the discovery of this mechanism has now opened the door for a completely new field of sleep research:
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.
This research is made even more fascinating and promising by recent advances in gene therapy and gene replacement. Soon, individuals with sleep disorders might be able to have their genetic biological clocks “reset” by simple non-invasive gene therapies. Like many diseases, insomnia and sleep apnea might soon be a thing of the past.
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