(Published in November 2017 issue of Santwanam magazine.)
The Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, this year, for their “discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”.The Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, this year, for their “discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”.
What is circadian rhythm?
Circadian rhythm is the 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living things. It is driven by a biological clock within us, with day-night cycles helping us to organize various activities of our body. This clock is called a circadian clock. It is affected by environmental factors, like sunlight and temperature. This clock controls sleep patterns, variation in blood pressure and body temperature, release of hormones, etc
Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka discovered, in 1970s, that mutations in an unknown gene affected the circadian clock in fruit flies. They named this gene ‘period’. But it was not clear as to how this gene influences the circadian rhythm.
Period gene and PER protein
This year’s Nobel Laureates Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, working closely with Michael Young, discovered the ‘period’ gene as well as the 24-hour cycles of the the protein PER encoded by the period gene. These oscillations that they found were in sync with the circadian rhythm. Further, Michael Young discovered a second clock gene ‘timeless’. This gene encodes the TIM protein. The TIM protein when bound to PER was able to enter the cell nucleus and block period gene activity thus closing the inhibitory feedback loop. Michael Young also identified yet another gene called ‘doubletime. This gene encodes the DBT protein delaying the accumulation of the PER protein. That is how frequency of the oscillations is controlled to closely match a 24-hour cycle.
While existence of a circadian clock, by itself, is a long accepted fact, these discoveries establish beyond any doubt that they are inherent and integral part of our body. As our body functions are regulated by this, it is obvious that one needs to lead a life in tune with this as far as possible. Chronic and huge disconnect between lifestyle and rhythm is a strong indication for many diseases
Ayurveda has been always a strong advocate of regimen for healthy and happy living. In fact, it makes specific recommendations for disciplined daily life as Dinacharya as well as regimens to adapt to various seasons as Ritucharya. Caught in the rigors of daily life, disciplined lifestyle becomes the first causality. When these cannot be avoided, it is important to take adequate preventive and corrective measures so that overall health is not affected.