Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology 2017

Nature of Science
STEM
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

The names Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University and Michael Young of Rockefeller University apparently were not on anyone's list to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2017. The so-called "smart money" was on others. But Hall, Rosbash and Young did just that. The award made October 2 acknowledges "their discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm."

The earth rotates and life is adapted to this daily turning. Life has an internal "clock" that allows it to anticipate this regular cycle and to adapt to it through well-know processes of evolution.The press release (cited above) announcing the award notes that Hall, Rosbash and Young showed that "(a) gene that controls the normal biological rhythm encodes a protein that accumulates in cells during the night, and is then degraded during the day leads to remarkable regulatory functions."  The gene was given the name "timeless."

Jerome Groopman who writes about medicine and biology for The New Yorker wondered why these particular candidates were given the prize. After all their work was with fruitflies and one could ask (as many have about this kind of work) who cares how fruitflies make sense of this turning planet. Of what use is it?  Groopman recalled a conversation he once had with a member of a Nobel selection committee who told him that among the considerations is message, the message that is sent by making the award.

Groopman asked himself about the meaning of the award. This "announcement, and last year's, is that both are about the divide between basic research--the pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake--and applied research, which focusses on work with obvious, immediate effects." As Groopman  notes in the short essay linked above the award "is a kind of rebuke" to those who rail against the waste of this kind of investigation into nature. However, "the Nobel Committee made clear this morning, the science that informs and occasionally upends our understanding of human health and disease often comes from unexpected places."






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