Two AAAS Members Win 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Michael Rosbash, a AAAS fellow and member, Michael W. Young, a AAAS member, and Jeffrey C. Hall become Nobel laureates for discoveries about how the inner workings of the biological clock synchronize with Earth’s rotations. | From left, Scott Eisen/HHMI, Mario Morgado/The Rockefeller University

Two American Association for the Advancement of Science members – one of them a AAAS fellow – were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 2 for uncovering the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm of living creatures.

Michael Rosbash, a AAAS fellow and member, and Michael W. Young, a AAAS member, along with Jeffrey C. Hall “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” said the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine in a statement announcing the award from Stockholm. “Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”

The team’s work dates to 1984 when Rosbash and Hall, working together at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, along with Young of Rockefeller University in New York City, sought to unlock how the circadian clock actually works. The three isolated the gene responsible for disrupting the fruit fly’s biological clock and went on from there to discover “paradigm-shifting discoveries” that “established key mechanistic principles of the biological clock,” the Nobel Committee said. 

The team’s work was hailed for uncovering the inner workings that drive nature’s biological clock to prompt physiological changes, a discovery with significant applications in regulating behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.

Rosbash received his doctoral degree in 1970 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2007. The lifetime recognition that honors distinguished contributions to science and technology is bestowed by the AAAS Council, the member-elected governing body of AAAS. Rosbash has been a member of AAAS since 1973.

Young received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1975 and did his postdoctoral work as a fellow at Stanford University. He has been a AAAS member since 1981.

“This prize again illustrates the power of genetics and biochemistry in model organisms – in this case Drosophila fruit flies – in revealing fundamental physiological processes common to many organisms including humans,” said Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals.

“One of the surprises of this work is that the circadian clock is present in essentially all eukaryotic cells rather than being only present in specialized cells in the brain. Most cells have this machinery wherein a protein cycles with a 24-hour period. This gene regulatory protein can then affect other aspects of physiology,” Berg added.

The work has opened the door to additional research on “the effects of circadian disruptions on physiological functions,” said Berg, noting the “implications for work schedules, sleep hygiene, and so on. In addition, the question of how the clock stays aligned with the day-night cycle was subsequently discovered, implicating proteins.”

“This is very elegant and fundamental physiological and genetic and biochemical work,” said Berg.