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Heads of Laboratories

Michael W. Young, Ph.D.

Vice President for Academic Affairs
Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor
Laboratory of Genetics

Research Lab Members Publications In the News

Faculty Bio

Michael Young

Dr. Young studies the biological clocks that govern the timing of an organism’s daily activities. He is interested in how circadian rhythms arise from interactions among certain genes and their proteins, which set up molecular oscillations. His lab’s findings have implications for sleep and mood disorders, as well as dysfunctions related to the timing of gene activity underlying vision, locomotion, metabolism, immunity, learning, and memory.

Biological clocks are internal mechanisms that control the timing of daily activities in living organisms. In Drosophila melanogaster, these circadian clocks are regulated by a small group of genes including per (period), tim (timeless), dbt (double-time), clk (clock), cyc (cycle), sgg (shaggy), Pdp1 (PAR domain protein 1), and vri (vrille) loci. Mutations in any of these genes can lengthen or shorten the period of behavioral and other circadian rhythms, or abolish the rhythms altogether. The abundance of per, tim, vri, Pdp1, and clk RNA and their encoded proteins changes rhythmically with a circadian period. Mutations affecting any of these genes have corresponding effects on behavioral and molecular rhythms.
Dr. Young has been studying circadian clocks for nearly three decades with a focus on their cellular and molecular machinery. Research from the Young lab led to the discovery of most of the genes listed above. Two of them make key proteins, TIM and PER, that shift their subcellular location in a 24-hour cycle. Dr. Young and his colleagues found these proteins accumulate, pair up in the cell’s cytoplasm, and migrate into the nucleus, where their presence stops their production by shutting down the per and tim genes. These events are strictly timed within the cell, as PER and TIM are retained in the cytoplasm for a fixed interval of several hours. This delay promotes RNA and protein rhythms, and determines the period of the clock. Another of the lab’s discoveries is that the enzyme casein kinase 1 (DBT) regulates the pace of this 24-hour molecular clock by restricting the longevity of the PER protein. Others have recently shown that faulty interactions between casein kinase 1 and PER cause certain heritable sleep disorders in humans.

Dr. Young’s laboratory has used oligonucleotide microarrays that represent all 14,000 fly genes to study the gene expression programs regulated by the molecular clock. They have found that in the Drosophila head, approximately 400 to 500 genes — about six to seven percent of all genes active in the head — are expressed with a circadian rhythm. Genes composing this large circadian program influence almost every aspect of the fly’s biology, and subsets of these genes switch on and off with phases representing every hour of the day and night. When genes of the clock are mutated, this program of temporally sequenced gene expression disappears even if environmental cycles are present, indicating the temporal program is thoroughly dependent on the molecular oscillator.

Recently, members of the Young laboratory have identified genes that affect the homeostatic regulation of sleep in Drosophila, uncovering specific neurons whose activity promotes sleep. They have also begun to study sleep and circadian rhythms at the genetic and molecular levels in humans. The latter work involves collaborative studies of circadian behavioral and physiological rhythms that are coupled to studies in the Young laboratory that assess rhythmic gene and protein activities established in cultured cells derived from patients with certain sleep and depressive disorders.


Dr. Young received his undergraduate degree in biology in 1971 and his Ph.D. in genetics in 1975, both from The University of Texas, Austin. Following postdoctoral work in biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, he was appointed assistant professor at Rockefeller in 1978 as part of The Rockefeller University Fellows Program. He was named associate professor in 1984 and professor in 1988, and from 1987 to 1996 he was an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. From 1991 to 2001 Young headed the Rockefeller unit of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center for Biological Timing. Young was named the university’s Vice President for Academic Affairs and Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor in 2004. 

Dr. Young is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He is a recipient of the 2013 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, the 2013 Wiley Prize in Biomedical Science, the 2012 Canada Gairdner International Award, the 2012 Massry Prize, the 2011 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry and the 2009 Neuroscience Prize of the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

Dr. Young is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.

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