Alum Wins Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine
Issue   |   Tue, 10/24/2017 - 20:07

Jeffrey C. Hall ’67 received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 2 along with two other scientists, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.

“The paradigm-shifting discoveries by the laureates established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock,” wrote the Nobel Prize committee in a press release. As a result of the work by Hall’s team, “circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field.”

Hall began his research by studying genetics using a fruit fly model. The Nobel laureates isolated the period (per) gene in 1984. Although the idea of a gene influencing circadian rhythms was not novel, they were the first to find the gene and research its functionality within the cell.

The laureates discovered that the per gene produces a protein, PER, that builds up in the cell during the night but degrades during the day using a feedback inhibition loop by which the protein would reduce the expression of the gene from which it came. Such expression and inhibition continues in a regular, cyclical fashion.

PER is responsible for regulating circadian rhythms, which, in turn, regulate sleep cycles, metabolism, behavior, body temperature and hormone patterns. Eventually, researchers were able to broaden their findings to encompass more complex organisms such as humans, animals and plants.

The laureates’ research falls under the umbrella of “basic science research” — research that fills in gaps of scientific information and provides the foundation of knowledge for applied sciences. Basic science research stands in contrast to applied research — such as medical and pharmaceutical research — which focuses on fixing a problem that has direct applications. “It’s just one of a zillion examples of how basic research on a supposedly irrelevant organism can have broader significance,” said Hall in an interview with Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media Adam Smith.

Hall often talks about his philosophy of “loving the little flies,” which he says is the foundation of his attitude toward his research and the reason he has found success. This attitude was inspired Philip Ives ’32, a researcher and Hall’s mentor when he was a student at Amherst.

When he first came to Amherst, Hall planned to go into medicine, but quickly developed a passion for biology and fruit fly research with Ives.

“Jeff Hall performed his senior honors thesis research using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism to understand basic genetic mechanisms, and he continued to work on Drosophila for his entire career,” said Professor of Biology Alexandra Purdy in an email interview. “So, getting involved with research as an undergraduate can have a real impact.”

Associate Professor of Mathematics Tanya Leise lauded Hall as instrumental to her research — Leise’s collaborations with neuroscientists studying the circadian clock have aimed to link behavioral circadian rhythms with their underlying genetic basis. Their research includes studying per gene expression in mammals.

“[Hall and the other laureates] set the stage for this work by identifying the first known circadian clock gene,” Leise said. “The circadian field has rapidly advanced following their groundbreaking discovery, and it’s been amazing to be a part of this vibrant scientific community.”

Hall is “a brilliant and restless scientist, who envisioned problems in development through the clear lens of genetics,” Gerald Fink ’62, former director of MIT’s Whitehead Institute and genetics researcher, said on the Amherst website, which published a statement congratulating Hall.

Hall is now retired, but taught as biology professor at Brandeis University for most of his career after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle. He was not available for comment.