Brandeis scientists feted at Gairdner ceremonies

Rosbash and Hall honored for groundbreaking work in circadian rhythms

Photos/Brian Summers

Professor Michael Rosbash receives congratulations from President Fred Lawrence.

Michael Rosbash, the Peter Gruber Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Brandeis’ National Center for Behavioral Genomics, and Professor Emeritus of Biology Jeffrey C. Hall were honored last night at a festive awards ceremony in Toronto celebrating their receipt of the prestigious Canada Gairdner Award, that nation’s foremost international scientific honor.

The Brandeis researchers are long-standing collaborators whose work led to pioneering discoveries about the workings of the biological clock and its role in circadian rhythms, today.  The Gairdner  Award is meant “to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life.”

They shared the 2012 award with Professor Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University in New York.

This is the third major award for the trio stemming from their 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.

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,” Rosbash said when the award was announced. “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.”

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. Earlier this year,  he became the inaugural Peter Gruber Professor of Neuroscience.

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.

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