The circadian clocks that control and influence dozens of basic biological processes have an unexpected "snooze button" that helps cells adapt to changes in their environment.
A study by Vanderbilt University researchers published online Feb. 17 by the journal Nature provides compelling new evidence that at least some species can alter the way that their biological clocks function by using different "synonyms" that exist in the genetic code.
"This provides organisms with a novel and previously unappreciated mechanism for responding to changes in their environment," said Professor of Biological Sciences Carl Johnson. He and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Antonis Rokas collaborated on the study.
Like many written languages, the genetic code is filled with synonyms: differently spelled "words" that have the same or very similar meanings. For a long time, biologists thought that these synonyms, called synonymous codons, were in fact interchangeable. Recently, they have realized that this is not the case and that differences in synonymous codon usage have a significant impact on cellular processes, so scientists have advanced a wide variety of ideas about the role that these variations play.
The new insight is not only an important advance in understanding evolution at the molecular level, but it also has potential applications in biotechnology, such as biofuel production, and gene therapy.
"While biological clocks are vital to maintaining healthy patterns of sleep, metabolism, physiology and behavior, under certain environmental conditions strict adherence to these rhythms can be disadvantageous," said Michael Sesma of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partially funded the work. "This work shows how organisms can ignore the clock under certain circumstancesmuch like hitting a biological snooze button on the internal timepieceand enhance their survival in the face of ever-changing circumstances."
|Contact: David Salisbury|