Amherst congratulates geneticist Jeffrey C. Hall ’67, named a winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this week. Hall and fellow scientists Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were recognized for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms.
Hall is the former Libra Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Maine and a professor emeritus at Brandeis University.
Read an interview with Hall on the Nobel site.
Thanks to Hall and his colleagues, “we now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms,” the Nobel Prize committee said. “The paradigm-shifting discoveries by the laureates established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock.”
Circadian rhythms—often called internal, biological or body clocks—help regulate patterns of daily biological processes. The clocks are responsible for such important functions as sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone release, blood pressure and body temperature. Not adjusting chronically out-of-whack circadian rhythms—brought on from regularly working a “night shift,” for example—can increase an individual’s susceptibility to a host of other serious illnesses.
To learn what makes these internal clocks tick, the scientists studied fruit flies, and, in 1984, isolated what is called the period gene. The laureates found that the period gene produces a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night and then degrades during the day, moving in sync with the circadian rhythms.
Their research eventually led them to other genes and proteins involved with the biological clock and insight into how light helps set them. They also learned that the clocks work similarly in not only fruit flies, but also other organisms with multiple cells, including plants and humans.
As a result of those “seminal discoveries,” the committee concluded, “circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.”
“My research collaborations with neuroscientists studying the circadian clock have aimed to link behavioral circadian rhythms with their underlying genetic basis, largely through measurement of Period2 gene expression in mammals,” said Tanya Leise, associate professor of mathematics whose research focuses on the mammalian circadian clock. “[Hall and the other laureates] set the stage for this work by identifying the first known circadian clock gene, the Period gene in fruit flies. The circadian field has rapidly advanced following their groundbreaking discovery, and it’s been amazing to be a part of this vibrant scientific community.”
Fellow geneticist Gerald Fink ’62 describes Hall as “a brilliant and restless scientist, who envisioned problems in development through the clear lens of genetics.”
After graduating from Amherst with a degree in biology, Hall earned a doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1971 and served as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1971 to 1973. He joined the faculty at Brandeis in 1974 then, in 2002, became associated with University of Maine.
He is the fifth Amherst graduate to be awarded a Nobel. The others are Harold Varmus ’61 in 1989 for physiology or medicine, Henry W. Kendall ’50 in 1990 for physics, Joseph Stiglitz ’64 in 2001 for economics and Edmund Phelps ’55 in 2006 for economics.