Hall, Rosbash and Young. This is a time where media flashes, urgent and aggressive, on your screen, in your pocket, while you eat, while you’re trying to study. Names claim your attention and seem to disappear in a moment, replaced by the next ones in the boom and bust of what feels like increasingly urgent and critical stories. These names in particular should not break the cycle for any reason, being the sort of forgettable white-guy names found on many of your syllabi; unfortunately, their moment of fame comes at a time when just about everything else in the world seems more important.
The three study biological clocks. This term refers to the kind of signaling mechanisms in living things that, completely apart from conscious awareness, regulate much biological activity. An organism has needs and activity levels that differ depending on its state, which changes all the time. Mechanistic, time-based cellular clocks are responsible for signaling changes through periodic cycles, be they days, seasons or years. These are the kinds of clocks that release hunger-stimulating enzymes at similar times each day, that allow you to fall asleep when it’s dark, that create the miraculous momentary switch between you pulling your eyes open, faltering out of bed, then biking with balance and coordination on the way to class (though they don’t guarantee you’ll stay awake once you get there).
In a shockingly ahistorical tendency for forgettable white guys to receive Nobel Prizes, the researchers received this recognition on Monday. Their work on a protein named PER is of particular interest. If you’ve ever taken biology, you may know about negative feedback loops, but if not, here’s a mini-lesson: a particular gene (they named the one involved in PER production period) codes instructions for building a protein, and the protein is produced. The protein accumulates, one after another, until it gets to be too much and production has to stop. Here’s the thing: the way the gene ‘knows’ to turn itself off and end the cycle, is signaled by the buildup of the very protein it produces. That is, the PER molecule signals to block its own production. As the time cycle continues, the protein is used up until there is no more, and the absence of the molecule signals for the “period” gene to start back up again. This happens again and again each day, with timing so exact and elegant it could make you cry.
If you don’t know why I’m telling you this, it’s not so that you cultivate a sense of wonder for your body’s innumerable coordinated activities. It’s not to push you to appreciate the subtle beauty of a genetic symphony that makes waking up a not-so-horrifying experience. It’s not even to make you think about how the time cycles of the Earth have everything to do with the way your physiology is organized and carried out. It’s to get you to imagine that cellular environment as the PER is building up, when one after the other is materializing, faster than you can count, it’s all too much and it seems like there’s no space left. With a sigh, when the cell is ready, enough will be enough.