U.S. scientists win Nobel Prize for ‘internal clock’ research

Three American scientists who have been studying the gene responsible for circadian systems had their own biological rhythms disrupted — with an early-morning phone call telling them they had just been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries about the internal clocks and biological rhythms that govern most living things, including humans.

Using fruit flies as a model organism, the team isolated a gene responsible for setting the circadian clock that regulates sleep, eating patterns, hormones and body temperature.

Scientists have long known that life on Earth is attuned to the planet’s rotation, but the three Americans — specialists in the field of chronobiology — “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” said the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which announced the prize October 2.

A Nobel committee member described the three scientists’ achievement as “the discovery of a fundamental mechanism underlying very important aspects of physiology: how our cells can keep time.”

The trio’s discoveries have strong implications for human health.

Misalignments in the circadian clock are believed to play a role in disease susceptibility and the functioning of the immune system. Alzheimer’s, depression, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation and metabolic disorders are commonly linked to disruptions in the body’s internal clock.

Jet lag — the disorientation that occurs when people cross into different time zones — is a temporary manifestation of a misaligned internal clock, one all too familiar to travelers.

When told during the 5 a.m. phone call of the Nobel Prize the three scientists would share, Rosbash reportedly said: “You are kidding me.”

Hall, 72, was born in New York and received his doctoral degree from the University of Washington in 1971. For decades, he was on the faculty of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, near Boston. More recently, he has been associated with the University of Maine.

Rosbash, 73, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to immigrant parents who fled Nazi Germany. A former Fulbright scholar, Rosbash received his doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971 and also studied at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. He has been on the faculty at Brandeis University since 1974.

Young, 68, was born in Miami and received his doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1975. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, before joining the faculty at the Rockefeller University, in New York City, in 1978.

The scientists will share the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).

Nobel Prizes in other categories will be announced in the coming days.