Life on Earth is adapted to the rotation of our planet. For many years we have known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal, biological clock that helps them anticipate and adapt to the regular rhythm of the day. But how does this clock actually work? This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine laureates, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, were able to look inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings. Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.
Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.
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 hypothesized 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 tantalizing, 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, where the genetic material is located. 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 synchronize the clock.
Jeffrey C. Hall was born 1945 in New York, USA. He received his doctoral degree in 1971 at the University of Washington in Seattle and was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1971 to 1973. He joined the faculty at Brandeis University in Waltham in 1974. In 2002, he became associated with University of Maine.
Michael Rosbash was born in 1944 in Kansas City, USA. He received his doctoral degree in 1970 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. During the following three years, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Since 1974, he has been on faculty at Brandeis University in Waltham, USA.
Michael W. Young was born in 1949 in Miami, USA. He received his doctoral degree at the University of Texas in Austin in 1975. Between 1975 and 1977, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto. From 1978, he has been on faculty at the Rockefeller University in New York.
If you would like to read more about work from these Nobel Prize winners (Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash), see their original research published in BioEssays: Genetics and molecular biology of rhythms.