The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017 has been awarded to three scientists for their work in understanding the biological clock inside all of us.
While many of us might rely on a watch, the human body actually already contains a biological clock that helps regulate our sleep, repair our bodies and even prevent us from getting unwell.
Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young have been awarded the prize for not just understanding how humans have a biological clock but how much of life on Earth runs on a standardised day/night pattern known as the circadian rhythm.
To better understand the inner workings of this clock, the team decided to focus on fruit flies.
They were then able to isolate a specific gene that controls the fly’s daily biological rhythm. What they found was that gene encodes a protein that accumulates in a cell during the night and is then degraded throughout the day.
Imagine a biological hourglass that fills and then empties each day and you’re on the right track.
What made their discovery particularly important was that the same process applies across many different living organisms.
With remarkable levels of precision, the body is able to adapt its physiology based on this internal clock and regulates everything from behaviour to sleep, metabolism and even body temperature.
Any change in these elements can then disrupt the body’s ability to regulate itself. It’s why jet lag can be so unpleasant and also why a mismatch between our sleeping patterns and the body’s biological clock can lead to increased risk of diseases.