Two distinguished Brandeis researchers, whose long-standing collaboration led to pioneering discoveries about the workings of the biological clock and its role in circadian rhythms, today were awarded the prestigious Canada Gairdner Award, that nation's foremost international scientific honor.
Michael Rosbash, the Peter and Patricia Gruber Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Brandeis' National Center for Behavioral Genomics, and Professor Emeritus of Biology Jeffrey C. Hall were given the award "to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life."
They share the Canada Gairdner Award with Professor Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University in New York. This is the third major award for the trio stemming from their groundbreaking research into circadian rhythms, using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Last year, they were awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. In 2009, the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation awarded them its Neuroscience Prize.
Rosbash, in accepting the award today, said: "It's a very flattering honor, in large part because of the wonderful group of people who go before us, who have won the Canada Gairdner Awards in the past. I am humbled by being included in their company."
President Fred Lawrence congratulated the two Brandeis scientists and their colleague. "We are extremely proud of them and the research that was conducted on this campus," he said. "This was extraordinary work that holds the promise of improving human life, and it represents the best of Brandeis."
The Gairdner Foundation in Toronto began giving awards in 1959 to recognize and reward the world's most creative and accomplished biomedical scientists. Of 298 individuals from 13 countries who have been honored, 76 have subsequently won the Nobel Prize.
"The Canada Gairdner Award has a big role to play in helping the scientific community communicate effectively with the public," said Rosbash. "This allows people to have a reminder from time to time that we occasionally make important discoveries despite being craftsmen like everyone else."
Circadian rhythms – cyclic responses synchronized to the time of the day – are a fundamental aspect of behavior in humans and animals. The built-in biological clock regulates sleep and wakefulness, activity and rest, hormone levels, body temperature and many other vital functions. Circadian clocks are active throughout human and animal bodies; organs such as the brain, liver, lungs and skin use the same genetic mechanism to control different rhythmic activities.
Studying the fruit fly, the researchers discovered that circadian clocks are regulated by a small group of genes that work together to set up daily rhythms starting at the level of individual molecules and then cells. Subtle mutations in any of these genes can speed up or slow down the rate of the circadian cycle and change patterns of behavior and physiology.
The Gairdner Foundation cited the impact of the research conducted at the Rosbash-Hall laboratories at Brandeis over a period of more than 20 years. When Drs. Rosbash, Hall and their teams identified the genes that govern circadian rhythms, the Gairdner Foundation noted, "it was the first real inroad into the brain and how complex behavioral phenomena are controlled. This discovery helped scientists understand, for the first time, what kind of biological machine influences this aspect of human behavior.
"Understanding this cycle has the potential to lead to improvements in the treatments of a variety of diseases that are controlled by the circadian cycle. Potential applications include new sleep drugs that are more effective, a cure for jet lag and ways to combat certain forms of depression. Virtually anything that these rhythms touch is a potential target for therapeutic intervention," the Gairdner Foundation added.
Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Division of Science, highlighted the importance of the discoveries made by the three researchers.
"The elucidation of the molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms stands out as one of the triumphs of modern biology," she said. "It is a privilege to have watched this story unfold due to the work done here at Brandeis by the Rosbash and Hall laboratories and at Rockefeller by the Young laboratory. In my opinion this work represents the best example to date of a complex behavior understood at the molecular and cellular level."
Provost Steve A.N. Goldstein also lauded the work of Rosbash and his collaborators.
"There is a tiny, superlative group of investigators like Michael Rosbash who make discoveries that open our eyes to new vistas and create new disciplines. Michael and his colleagues discovered the genetic basis for biological rhythms fundamental to life because they control when we sleep and are wakeful, how we absorb food and expend energy and how well we resist disease. His work shows how basic science can both explain and improve the human experience," said Goldstein.
Rosbash is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the National Academy of Sciences. Last week, Brandeis President Fred Lawrence announced that Rosbash had been named the inaugural Peter and Patricia Gruber Professor of Neuroscience. The chair was established by the Gruber Foundation through a recent gift to the university.
Hall is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the National Academy of Sciences, and was a recipient of the 2003 Genetics Society of America Medal
Asked what motivates him to pursue his research, Rosbash said: "Curiosity. I've been doing this science thing for a long while, and I like the lab. In other words, I like coming to work, designing experiments, interpreting them and learning how the world works."
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