Even green pond scum can suffer from jet lag

Blue-green algae better known as green pond scum are the simplest organisms known that have an internal biological clock.

Biologists know that biological clocks play a critical role in most living organisms including humans, but, despite an abundance of theories, they don't really know why. Now, a research team from Vanderbilt, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard Medical School has taken a significant step toward answering this question. In an article published the week of Dec. 2 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report having successfully determined the structure of a biological clock protein for the first time.

The protein in question is called KaiC and it comes from a genus of blue-green algae named Synechococcus. Carl Johnson, the professor of biological sciences who headed up the study, directs one of the few labs in the world that studies biological clocks in prokaryotes, single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus.

In humans and other higher organisms, biological clocks control the wake-sleep cycle and have a profound influence on a number of different basic biological processes. When a person's internal clock is out of sync with the environment, jet lag is the result.

Not many scientists are studying biological clocks in prokaryotes because no one thought they had them until recently, Johnson says. That is because bacteria typically reproduce in less than 24 hours. Biologists had developed a general rule that a microorganism that divided in less than a day becoming a whole new individual in the process would gain no benefit from possessing an internal clock. So they had pretty much stopped looking for internal clocks in fast-growing bacteria.

Like many such rules of thumb, however, this neat formulation was disproved in the 1980s by a group of Taiwanese scientists who didn't know any better. They were investigating how blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) fou

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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