Youssef and the Biological Clock


My son Youssef likes scientific subjects and discoveries. He watches only science and discovery channels—such as National Geographic, Discovery, and Planet Green—and programs such as Please Your Mind, The Magic of Physics, etc. In one of our discussions, Youssef said:

"How can I become a scientist and win a Nobel Prize in Science?"

I advised him: “You should study hard, believe in your studies, set a goal for yourself, and strive to achieve it. You may enroll at the Faculty of Science or the Faculty of Medicine, for example. Then you may contact international scientists, discuss scientific issues not tackled by anyone before, and you will serve humanity by your research results.”

Youssef asked: “Like Ahmed Zewail?”

I replied: “Exactly, but you should know that winning a Nobel Prize is not as easy and simple as it might seem. Do you know who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2017? and why?”

Youssef eagerly replied: “Yes, it was shared between three American scientists for their discovery of the genes responsible for the biological clock in living organisms.”

I asked: “Do you know their age and the story of their research?”

He replied: “No, father.”

I said: “They are Dr. Jeffrey C. Hall from New York, 72 years old; Dr. Michael Rosbash from Kansas, 73 years old; and Dr. Michael W. Young from Miami, 68 years old.”

Youssef wondered: “Why didn’t they receive the Prize at a younger age?!”

My reply was: “The story began thirty-three years ago, precisely in 1984, when the scientists researched and attempted to understand the genes responsible for the biological clock in fruit flies.”

He interrupted me saying: “Why did they research specifically fruit flies? Why did they choose this topic?”

I replied: “It seems you are not familiar with the term biological clock.”

He said in denial: “It is something inside the human brain that automatically controls our sleep and wake up times.”

I resumed: "You are correct; the biological clock is also responsible for major changes in our behavior, mood, and body functions. Almost every cell in the human body, plants, animals, even fungi, have something similar to a clock. The temporary interruption of the biological clock during long flights causes a disorder known as “Jet Lag”, which hinders the human body from adapting to the surrounding new place after traveling for long distances. This disorder results in digestive problems, headaches, insomnia, and sometimes temporary depression.

As for your inquiry about fruit flies, scientists found that “Period” gene encodes a protein known as “PER”, which accumulates in fruit fly cells overnight before being broken down in the daytime. They found that the “PER” protein levels fluctuate and change over the 24-hour cycle, which represents the Earth cycle and synchronize with the biological clock rhythm in the fruit fly body."

Youssef commented: “How could they do such studies while the genes cannot be seen by the naked eye?”

I answered patiently: “They use microscopic and micro-chemical analysis, which have developed over these long years and have helped the three scientists and their team to accomplish their research. At first, scientists thought that the sequential secretion and decomposition of proteins responsible for genes in cells result from the daytime light movement and darkness at night. When they isolated the fruit fly in a dark place and other flies in a fully illuminated place for a continuous twenty-four hours, they observed no defect in secretion and decomposition of proteins responsible for the biological clock genes. Thus, they concluded that it is an internal process not affected by light and darkness, but is affected by the same rotation of Earth.”

Again Youssef asked: “What are the benefits of these results, father?”

With relish I answered: “The benefits do not lie in the results of their fruit fly research only. They also noticed that the leaves of the mimosa tree are spread open during the day towards the Sun's direction, but fold up at night. They placed the plant in permanent darkness and discovered that the leaves continued their daily rhythm naturally. When they controlled the amount of protein responsible for the biological clock genes inside the cell, they found a way to control the behavior of certain vital activities.”

I resumed: “The research's importance lies in discovering the mechanism of biological clock genes, which helps in controling them and discovering treatments for several serious diseases resulting from its defect.”

Youssef commented: “Indeed it is a complex and significant research.”

I confirmed his words, saying: "The Nobel Prize Committee described their research as a complex one and offered them a prize worth USD 1.1 million to be shared equally among them."

Youssef thanked me, and resumed his study with gusto.

The article was first published in print in SCIplanetWinter 2018 Issue.

Cover image by diana.grytsku on Freepik.

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