All living organisms, including humans, have an internal biological clock called the circadian clock that helps them to anticipate and adapt to the time of the day. By studying fruit flies, Professor Michael Young identified several genes that regulate this clock in the 1980s and 1990s, winning the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside two other scientists.
The Nobel Prize committee said: “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behaviour, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. Since the seminal discoveries, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.”
Professor Young’s laboratory at the Rockefeller University, where he is Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor, continues to study circadian clocks, including how sleep and circadian rhythms are regulated at the genetic and molecular levels in humans.
The lab’s findings have shed light on sleep and mood disorders as well as dysfunctions related to the timing of gene activities underlying visual functions, movement, metabolism, immunity, learning and memory. It has identified, for example, a variant of the CRY gene that causes people to have a longer circadian cycle than most, making them “night owls” that sleep and wake later compared to the societal norm.
Beyond the Nobel Prize, Professor Young has been awarded the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience, Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Massry Prize, Canada Gairdner International Award, Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and numerous other honours. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Philosophical Society.