October 27, 2017
On October 2nd, 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to Dr. Jeffrey C. Hall, Dr. Michael Rosbash and Dr. Michael W. Young for their decades-long research and numerous discoveries on the molecular mechanisms that control our circadian rhythms and impact our wellbeing.
Scientists have long been aware of the circadian rhythm, but not how it works. Before this research, scientists thought that external factors may play a role—but the exact nature of that process was a mystery. “Nothing was known about the mechanism,” says Nobel Committee Chair Professor Anna Wedell in a video interview with Nobelprize.org. It wasn’t until 1984, when Hall, Rosbash, and Young experimented on this gene, that anything was known about its function.
These Nobel laureates were able to isolate the gene in fruit flies and see how it is used to make a protein that builds up during sleep. They also discovered several other factors that regulate this system—proteins that make up the interconnected loops that trigger protein input, synchronization, and output. The whole mechanism is dynamic and self-sustaining, what scientists refer to as an “oscillation”: a substance builds itself up then shuts off its own synthesis on an autonomous schedule.
Their discoveries also include a protein that degrades in the presence of light. Normally this happens when the sun comes up, but light exposure at night can cause the mechanism to delay regulation by a matter of hours. That’s why we get jetlag and why using bright screens at night disrupts our sleep. This knowledge has been critical for the lighting industry as we explore ways to illuminate ourselves at night without triggering that delay.
Hall, Rosbash, and Young’s work is important for everyone, the Nobel committee said, because when our lifestyles and our internal clocks are out of synch, we are more at risk for various diseases. Circadian rhythm impacts our wellbeing, our behavior, our energy—literally every second of our lives.
Thanks to these three scientists, we now understand this highly complex, highly sophisticated, self-regulated system of genes and proteins. We know how this system communicates environmental factors to the various bodily functions that need to know what to do and when to do it. “It explains how we are adapted to the planet,” says Wedell. “[Their work] has opened so many questions, and enabled so many questions.”
Wedell stressed this fact. The knowledge these three scientists have brought us is merely the beginning. We’ve correlated behavioral health, sleep health, light exposure, disease—but we haven’t yet been able to pinpoint exact treatments based on circadian science. “All we’ve had are correlations,” she says. The implications for our health have yet to be proven. “But they’ve provided tools for that.”
Often at Visa Lighting we get asked to talk about circadian lighting and how it links to our body clock. The truth is that there are ongoing studies linking genes, photoreceptors, and more human insights on our circadian rhythm every day. These discoveries, like lighting, will impact everyone. As we continue to learn more, we are pleased to share it with you. We are amazed by these winners and send a big congratulations their way!