The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced yesterday and, suffice it to say, it was a surprise.
There have been many scientific advances that have made a big splash recently. It would have been no surprise to see the discoverers of the gene editing technique CRISPR practicing their acceptance speeches. The same could be said for the team that has brought immunotherapy to the forefront of cancer treatment - predicted by some to be the recipients this year.
But, this year's Nobel announcement was like when the big film that everyone is talking about does not take home the Oscar. Just like how the filmmakers understand why the small, independent film won - the same is true here. Scientists understand the choice of the three people who were chosen to win the Nobel Prize because it epitomizes the type of pioneering science that we not only respect but strive to do.
The three people who woke up to the phone call from the Nobel committee - Dr. Jeffrey Hall and Dr. Michael Rosbash from Brandeis University and Dr. Michael Young from The Rockefeller University - are a team that made their careers studying the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and discovered the presence of circadian rhythms in their system.
Most people have heard of circadian rhythms with regards to waking and sleeping. But, circadian rhythms are much more than that. Many cells in the body (not just neurons which dictate sleep cycles) have internal clocks that keep our cells on a cycle and control much of our behavior and health.
More specifically, the three scientists identified and defined the genes that regulate the circadian clock. To clarify - they discovered some of the first genes that regulate a cellular behavior - a profound discovery indeed. Furthermore, it was their early studies in fruit flies that laid the foundation for the rest of the scientific community to grab hold and study circadian rhythms in other animals such as mice and humans.
As the Nobel Committee is known to do - they have chosen three scientists who pioneered a field and whose early work paved the way to many more discoveries. So, although the work in the field of circadian rhythms has grown extensively from their early findings in the 80s, the Nobel committee has taken a justified "without you, there is no me" approach.
Like most aspects of the inner workings of science, the awarding of the Nobel prize may be hard to understand for non-scientists. But, scientists place a lot of value on original, seminal findings - and the people who paved the way for the science of today. It's why we study 60-year-old experiments done by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarthy, revere the drawings of Ramón y Cajal and say the names Torsten and Weisel with an air that indicates that they are, like many celebrities, a little bit more than human.
This choice for the prize is placing a value on what scientists value - well-done, interesting work done by a team of brilliant scientists. Studying the circadian rhythm is no longer flashy or sexy or new. But, it is a body of work that was started by three curious, innovative thinkers. The Nobel committee chose substance over flashiness - a choice that a scientist would make every time.
You can listen to the announcement by Thomas Perlmann, secretary general for the Nobel Assembly and Nobel Committee, here.
You can also read some of the seminal work on the period gene in these papers:
Hall and Rosbash isolated the period gene and showed that it produced a protein, PER, that cycles on a daily rhythm Cell, 39:369-76, 1984
Rockefeller’s Michael Young and colleagues simultaneously isolated period, publishing the findings in Nature the same year (312:752-54).