Biologist Michael W. Young was honored with the 2017 Nobel Prize for his pioneering studies on circadian rhythm.
Michael W. Young has spent nearly three decades researching the biological clocks that regulate our bodies’ sleep patterns, metabolism, and response to disease. His lab has discovered many of the genes that regulate the circadian clock in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, and has also studied the mechanisms that drive sleep and circadian rhythms in humans. His work has implications for the treatment of various sleep and mood disorders, as well as other dysfunctions related to the timing of gene activities underlying visual functions, locomotion, metabolism, immunity, learning, and memory.
In 1984, Young and two other researchers—Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University —independently isolated a gene named period, first discovered in 1971 by Ronald J. Konopka and Seymour Benzer. The gene is needed to maintain circadian rhythm in the Drosophila brain, and its isolation led the three labs to subsequently unmask the general molecular mechanism for circadian clocks: a transcriptional feedback loop that progresses through the 24-hour cycle. Elements of the Young–Hall–Rosbash mechanism of the molecular clock were later found to be evolutionarily conserved throughout the animal kingdom.
Young has also identified other factors that help set the pacing of the clock, including the gene timeless, whose protein product interacts with that of the period to regulate the two genes in a cyclic manner.
Using whole-genome investigations, his lab later showed that as many any as six to seven percent of the genes active in the brains of Drosophila are expressed with a circadian rhythm. These genes influence almost every aspect of the fly’s biology, and subsets of them are switched on and off in phases aligning with the circadian cycle. The group has also identified genes whose activity promotes sleep.
Young’s research has direct implications for advancing the understanding of human diseases, and his lab is currently working to assess how rhythmic gene and protein activities are established in cells derived from patients with certain sleep and depressive disorders. For example, Young and his colleagues recently identified a common mutation in a gene called CRY1 that slows the biological clock and may account for many sleep disorders.
Young is Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor and head of the Laboratory of Genetics as well as vice president for academic affairs at The Rockefeller University.
Young received his undergraduate degree in biology in 1971 and his Ph.D. in genetics in 1975, both from The University of Texas at 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. Young was named associate professor in 1984 and professor in 1988, and in 2004 he was appointed the university’s vice president for academic affairs and Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor.
Young was an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 1987 to 1996. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Young is a recipient of the 2013 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, the 2013 Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the 2012 Massry Prize, the 2012 Canada Gairdner International Award, the 2011 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, and the 2009 Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation Neuroscience Prize.