Nobel Prize for Medicine goes to scientists studying circadian rhythms

Circadian rythims
© Nobel Committee

The importance of the circadian rhythms, the internal clocks in our bodies has been studiously ignored by designers, architects and engineers since electric light was invented. But now the Nobel Prize for Medicine has been given to three Americans, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, who figured out how our internal clocks actually work. This is really important because it gives serious credibility to the issue.

It turns out that there is actually a gene that controls how our body’s clock works. From the announcement:

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…. “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.”

Nobel comitted plant changes© Nobel Committee/ An internal biological clock. The leaves of the mimosa plant open towards the sun during day but close at dusk.

This internal clock is regulated by changes in sunlight throughout the day, and the lack of it at night. From the prize announcement:

The biological clock is involved in many aspects of our complex physiology. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms. A large proportion of our genes are regulated by the biological clock and, consequently, a carefully calibrated circadian rhythm adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.

But from where we sit in North America, there may be lots of research but there isn't much action or change. There is no right to natural light for workers, who can spend 8 hours a day in windowless offices or factories and get no exposure to natural light. We described the problems this caused a few years ago, quoting a study:

Electric light allowed humans to override an ancient synchronization between the rhythm of the human clock and the environment, and over the last century, daily rhythms in meal, sleep and working times have gradually disappeared from our lives. The human clock struggles to remain tuned to our highly irregular lifestyles, and I believe that this causes metabolic and other health problems, and makes us more likely to become obese.

In fact, the situation has been getting worse in recent years, as cities replace their street lights with cheap blue LED lights instead of more expensive colour balanced ones, and then say that brightness and security is more important.

Circadian rhythms have never got the respect they deserve from lighting designers, architects or engineers, often thought of as pseudoscience. But over last few years, they have been getting more attention. As Julia Belluz notes in VOX,

In recent years, researchers have discovered that each of us has a unique, genetically determined “chronotype,” or clock that programs our ideal sleep time in the 24-hour cycle. This discovery helped clarify why there are true “morning people” and true “night owls,” and why, as Vox’s Brian Resnick has argued, people should be able to set their own work schedules.

Now we find that there is an actual gene and a protein that regulates it, all recognized by the Nobel Committee. This is the kind of imprimatur that is needed to give the understanding of their importance.

And we hope soon it will be recognized what every human being deserves, which is access to natural light during the day, and to dark skies free of blue LED light at night, and that circadian rhythms really matter.

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