Clock cues: Cellular sensing, metabolism research wins Amersham Biosciences and Science Prize

All of us live our lives on the circadian clock, an interacting group of molecules that regulates the body's activities on a 24-hour cycle. This daily rhythm can be influenced by environmental cues-such as light, energy status, and food availability-through a special cellular sensing system described for the first time by Jared P. Rutter of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, winner of this year's $25,000 Young Scientist Prize awarded by Amersham Biosciences and Science.

These discoveries point to "a way for an organism, down at the cellular level, to respond to changes in its environment in a fairly rapid way, and to maintain its proper activity rhythm," said Rutter, who noted that changes in the circadian cycle in humans have been associated with sleep disorders and depression.

Rutter and his Ph.D. advisor Steven L. McKnight arrived at the UT Southwestern lab at the same time with no established projects to work on and the freedom to explore research problems that few other labs were pursuing.

"That's been one of the most exciting, and most rewarding, parts of my work, to look back at starting from scratch and actually see some headway in understanding the biology," said Rutter.

"Biological rhythms and their underlying mechanisms have become an exciting domain in neuroscience and cell biology. Rutter's work has provided an important new insight that will enhance the excitement," said Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy.

Rutter examined two proteins in his research, both containing a "sensing" domain known as a PAS domain. The first protein, NPAS2, is involved regulating the body's 24-hour cycle. Rutter discovered that NPAS2 acts as a bridge between the expression of circadian cycle genes and the cell's metabolic environment, by linking itself to a heme molecule that acts as a gas sensor in the cell. Production of gases like carbon monoxide is likely to fluctuate depending on a cell's metabolic activity.

Contact: Lisa Onaga
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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