Our biological clock is the reason we wake at the same time every morning and get sleepy at the same time every night. It’s why we are at our most alert and physically coordinated during the important hours following the sunrise.

Humans have felt these effects for thousands upon thousands of years. Scientists have recognized them for quite some time, too. But how it all worked was a mystery until three researchers solved the key with help from the fruit fly.

Those scientists, including Jeffrey C. Hall of the tiny central Maine town of Cambridge, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine this week.

Their award, for decades of research, shows the power of perseverance and the value of doing scientific research with the long view in mind. More than anything, it is a testament to the ability of science to inform and change our everyday lives.

Hall and Michael Rosbash first isolated the “period gene” in fruit flies. The gene, later found in humans and all other multicellular organisms, encodes a protein that accumulates during the night and degrades through the day.

Those oscillations – and interactions with other genes later identified by a third researcher, Michael Young – form the biological clock, regulating sleep, behavior, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism.


There is a direct line between the award-winning research and further study on how the daily cycle influences our health.

Our biological clock is designed by nature to follow the light-dark cycle of the day. When it is disrupted for short periods, such as on a cross-country flight, we feel strange – “jet lag.” When it is disrupted for longer periods, serious health problems may arise — diabetes, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s, among others.

When a doctor suggests that you get plenty of sleep, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, take a medication only in the morning or refrain from looking at a computer screen late at night, thank Hall and his fellow researchers, along with all those who have built upon their work.

That’s what makes science so important. The dedication of years to a single subject. The pulling of answers from unexpected places. The breakthroughs that inform other people’s work, leading to more breakthroughs. The use of that knowledge to make our lives better.

This round of Nobel prizes comes at a time of assault on science itself. For some time there has been a move to discredit science, to paint the bloodless conclusions reached in laboratories as products of propaganda and agenda. But the Trump administration has accelerated the effort.

They’ve removed references to climate change from government websites and cleared sites of data collected with taxpayer funds.

The administration has also halted research into the health risks of mountaintop removal coal mining and ignored the clear science on insecticide. They’ve gutted committees established to provide scientific guidance to federal agencies. The president’s budget proposal includes massive cuts to research funding.

What a dead-end philosophy. We should reject any strategy that says it’s OK to ignore facts or abandon the search for answers.

Cheers to Hall, Rosbash and Young on their great moment, and cheers to the scientists now doing work that will garner awards in the future, and push us toward a better way to live.

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