Three US scientists win Nobel Prize in Medicine

02 October, 2017, 22:05 | Author: Grady King
  • Nobel 2017

Three Americans shared the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology, which like the other prizes now amounts to SEK 9 million.

Michael Young of Rockefeller University in the US, together with Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall from Brandeis University, US, got the prize "for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm". This gave the impression that plants have their own biological clock. This negative feedback loop established a new paradigm that would become a prevailing theme in the study of circadian rhythms, as researchers identified additional loops and clock proteins over the years. The Japanese was awarded for discovering mechanisms of autophagy, basic process of degradation and recycling of cellular components and of great importance in many physiological phenomena.

In 2012, the three were recognized again with the Canada Gairdner International Award for pioneering science's understanding of the circadian rhythm. "They are totally fundamental in a way that we didn't anticipate" before the discoveries honored today.

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What is a biological clock?

The grandly-named French astronomer Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan performed some of the most convincing early experiments that pointed to the existence of an internal clock.

And it all started with fruit flies. Benzer and Konopka showed the mutations all had hit the same gene, presumably in different ways. Hall and Rosbash then discovered that levels of the protein the gene makes, dubbed PER, build up during the night and drop during the day, oscillating over a 24-hour cycle.

"Michael has made major contributions to unraveling how the circadian clock works", said HHMI President Erin O'Shea. Young figured out how that happened. Young's lab also identified a third protein - called doubletime - that controlled the timing of the destruction of the period proteins. In 1729, he showed that mimosa plants opened their leaves in the daytime and closed them again at night, even if they were kept in total darkness. Hall and Rosbash figured that PER blocked the activity of the period gene.

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These clocks, which allow organisms to adapt to the daily light cycles associated with Earth's rotation, control many biological functions, including hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism. Time of day can influence the effectiveness of drugs and their side effects.

"The seminal discoveries by Hall, Rosbash and Young have revealed a crucial physiological mechanism explaining circadian adaptation, with important implications for human health and disease", the Nobel Prize organizers said in a statement.

The award came as a complete surprise to one of the Nobelists.

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When the Nobel committee told Rosbach that he won the prize, he reportedly said: "You are kidding me".

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