Winter visitors to Sweden generally come to the chilly Nordic country for the hockey, the skiing – or, if you’re Professor Joel Levine, an invitation to attend a Nobel Prize ceremony.
Levine, chair of the Department of Biology at U of T Mississauga, leaves Dec. 5 for a trip to Stockholm where he and other geneticists will gather to celebrate the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, won by Michael Rosbash, Michael W. Young and Jeffrey C. Hall, one of Levine’s mentors, "for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm."
“I was a post-doctoral fellow in Jeff Hall’s lab three or four years before I came to U of T, and he became a personal friend,” says Levine, who also researches topics related to the circadian rhythm. “We stay in touch; the last time I saw him was when he and these two colleagues won the Gairdner Prize and came to Toronto to accept it.
“When I heard the Nobel news, I was out-of-my-mind happy for him. It was an amazing moment and it’s a bit overdue.”
Using fruit flies as their model, Hall, Rosbash and Young isolated a gene that controls daily biological rhythms and is also found in humans. They used gene therapy to insert a normal copy of the gene into mutant flies and found that their biological clocks reset to a normal rhythm. They also demonstrated that the protein encoded by this gene increases in a cell at night and decreases during the day, leading to changes in hormone levels, behaviour, metabolism and body temperature.
“They were able to reveal an entire mechanism showing how body clocks work and also showed that there is not just one clock, but clocks all over the body,” Levine says. “In jet lag, for example, clocks in various parts of the body aren’t in synch and the body becomes confused.”
Levine believes the work done by the Nobel Prize trio is incredibly important because “it established in a very rigorous way the relationship between genes and behaviour. We take the relationship for granted now, but at the time, it was a big deal.
“We’re just beginning to understand the value of their research in terms of the relationship between the mechanics of the cell cycle and cancer and how administering therapeutic agents at a particular time of day may make a difference. Their work can also help us understand sleep, auditory functions and development, abilities that are somehow associated with clocks in mammals.”
He lists research that is drawing on these findings: an understanding of the health issues related to shiftwork; seasonal affective disorder; adolescents and the best times of day for learning; and even considerations of how to organize a day while living on another planet.
Hall’s Nobel Prize is important for many other reasons, Levine says.
“Science research and basic biological research are under assault,” he says. “There are few dollars available for it and the kinds of questions being funded aren’t those that led to this prize. It’s a call for people to examine their values.
“There has also been a trend to get away from the fruit fly as a research model, but it’s a major model in asking about our genes. This award is important in demonstrating that it is a system worth pursuing.”
Levine is looking forward to the Nobel festivities, including the lectures, a concert and a dinner.
“In the schedule of events, they tell you what you must wear for various occasions,” he says. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ll be wearing tails.”
And upon his return, he’ll certainly have tales to tell.