Researchers Discover Mechanism That Drives Daily Body Rhythms

BOSTON -- January 11, 1999 -- The study of biological clocks is a field whose time has come -- and with breath-taking speed. Now a team of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) scientists has discovered that the same genetic machinery that controls the inner movements of the clock may drive the basic rhythms of the body -- the rise and fall of body temperature, blood pressure, hormones and the sleep -- wake cycle. The findings appear in the January 8 Cell.

"We think this is the first example of an output of the biological clock that we understand at a molecular level -- that is, how a bodily rhythm is controlled from the core clock loop," says Steven Reppert, professor of pediatrics at MGH and Harvard Medical School. Xiaowei Jin and Lauren Shearman, who are both research fellows in pediatrics at MGH, are lead authors on the Cell paper.

The discovery is also significant because it sheds further light on a biologically unique phenomenon, Reppert says. "We're talking about a time domain that is unusual in biology. We're talking about a cell being able to keep 24-hour time rather than millisecond or second-by-second time. That's what I think is so unusual. Feedback loops are very common in biology, but this sort of time domain is what makes this loop special," he says.

Ultimately, it may be possible to correct defects in the clock or harness it to improve the function of the body's daily, or circadian, rhythms. "Understanding the clock may allow us to manipulate sleep or at least to understand abnormalities of sleep in patients based on aberration of their central clock," he says.

A better understanding of how the clock mechanism drives bodily rhythms could also lead to more efficacious treatments of disease. For example, heart and asthma attacks are more likely to occur at certain times of day. And certain medications have greater efficiency and lower toxicity depending on what hour they are given. "It's a who

Contact: Misia Landau
Harvard Medical School

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