Nearly every living thing has an internal clock. Known as the circadian rhythm, it keeps track of time within our bodies, affecting biological processes and behaviors in relation to day and night. Disruptions to this clock, however, can have significant health consequences.
Now, Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) has announced that UCSC will receive a $730,000 grant via the National Institute of General Medical Sciences for its ongoing research on circadian rhythms.
“We know that sleep is paramount to good health, but we should know more about the internal systems that drive it,” Panetta said in a press release.
UCSC’s lead researcher, Carrie Partch, is a professor of biochemistry whose lab focuses on biological timekeeping.
“It’s this beautiful alignment of most forms of life on Earth with this day and night change,” says Partch. “We are not the same people at 10am as we are at 10pm. Almost everything in our body changes throughout the course of the day, from metabolism to release of hormones to behavior like sleep cycles.”
Partch’s research explores how changes we inherit from our parents translate to changes in clock timing and sleep patterns. Through identifying changes humans can inherit, her lab seeks to understand the basic mechanism of how our clocks work. She is especially interested in a prevalent “night owl mutation” that impacts as many as 1 out of 75 people of European descent. The mutation leads to changes in the internal clock and the release of melatonin, making it difficult for people who inherit it to go to sleep before 2 or 3 in the morning.
“If you’re sitting in a large amphitheater, there is almost a guarantee that there are a few folks with this inherited change,” she says.
The affected gene associated with this disorder is known as CRY-1. Last year, her lab published a paper identifying a model for how the inherited mutation disrupted the gene. Her research exemplifies how a tiny change in the genome affects the way we interact with the world on a daily basis.
Partch says that the new National Institute of General Medical Sciences grant will allow her lab to expand her research outside of humans to fungi, insects and even microscopic bacteria.
“By learning more about how all clocks function, it will help us even better understand how they work in humans so that we can develop therapies to help people,” she explains.
Disrupted clocks can be linked to comorbidities including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The World Health Organization, for example, has declared shift work that alters our day and night schedule as a probable carcinogen. Partch hopes her research will lead to strategies for “keeping the clock ticking” in those with disrupted circadian rhythms.