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Stanford technology enabled circadian clock research that won a Nobel Prize

The discovery of the inner workings of circadian clocks was honored this morning with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The award, recognizing the discovery of the genes and proteins that control daily rhythms such as our sleep-wake cycles, was shared by Jeffrey Hall, PhD, and Michael Rosbash, PhD, both of Brandeis University, and Michael Young, PhD, of Rockefeller University.

Although none of the circadian clock research was performed at Stanford, there is a strong connection between the School of Medicine and the work recognized by today's award. Young received his postdoctoral training in the lab of David Hogness, PhD, now an emeritus faculty member in biochemistry. At Stanford, Young learned to use recombinant DNA technology, which had been developed by Stanley Cohen, MD, and his team and expanded upon by Hogness and his colleagues to make the first maps of genetic sequences in fruit flies.

After he left Stanford, Young began the work that led to today's award. He was enticed by the possibility of using recombinant DNA technology to tease apart how specific genes influenced a complex behavior such as sleep. In an interview today with the Nobel Prize committee, Young explained:

You know, I had gone to Stanford to learn how to use this technology, it was brand new in the 70s. And starting up my lab at Rockefeller I had worked a little bit on this problem, circadian rhythms... I just thought it was a terrific problem and maybe the toughest thing I could try to tackle because it was behavior; you know, what could we learn about a fairly complicated behavior that we all exhibit, which was most easily represented by sleep wake cycles.

Hall and Rosbash, who raced Young to understand the circadian clock, also had a heavy Stanford influence in the form of recombinant DNA expertise from Pieter Wensink, PhD, another Brandeis scientist. Rosbach explained the Stanford link in a recent piece about his career from Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology:

Pieter Wensink was hired at Brandeis as an assistant professor and had been trained in recombinant DNA technology during his postdoc in the Hogness laboratory at Stanford. Stanford was the mecca of this technology, where it had been invented and then put into practice... Pieter brought the required reagents and expertise with him from Stanford, which significantly lowered the energy barrier to my adopting this technology.

Congratulations to the new Nobel Laureates and to Hogness, Cohen and all the other pioneers who laid the foundation in developing recombinant DNA techniques!

Previously: Stanford's Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine
Photo by Janne Poikolainen

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