AUSTIN, Texas — After research at The University of Texas at Austin first had him studying genetics using fruit flies over 40 years ago, Michael W. Young has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for pioneering research in the same insects that led to the identification of a gene that determines living things’ circadian rhythms.
Young received his B.A. in biology in 1971 and his Ph.D. in zoology in 1975. His dissertation on the genetics of the fruit fly (“Non-essential sequences, genes, and the polytene chromosome bands of Drosophila melanogaster”) provided an early window into his later work. He is now a professor and the vice president for academic affairs at The Rockefeller University.
Today, Young and two other researchers, Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, were declared the winners of the year’s top scientific prize in the life sciences. The three studied molecular mechanisms that are sometimes referred to as life’s “biological clock,” meaning the rhythms driven from within the cells that are responsible for patterns experienced over the course of the day in plants and animals. In people, circadian rhythms help to regulate everything from sleep to metabolism to response times to body temperature.
“Dr. Michael Young’s scientific discoveries have unlocked fundamental knowledge about life,” said Gregory Fenves, the president of the university. “And today, the world recognizes and celebrates his accomplishments. Everyone at UT is proud of Dr. Young and congratulates him as a Nobel Laureate.”
The Nobels are considered to be among the most prestigious prizes in the world and have been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace since 1901 by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. Young will receive a medal, cash prize and diploma at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.
This is the second Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with a UT Austin connection that involves genetic research and, in particular, mutating genes in fruit flies. In 1946, the same prize was given to Hermann J. Muller, a former professor at the university. Ninety years ago, Muller discovered that X-rays could induce genetic mutations in fruit flies, a discovery that also applied to other types of life and that helped change our understanding of the way evolution occurs.
Research done by Young and his colleagues in fruit flies involved mutating a single gene called period, without which the flies lost their natural circadian rhythms. After first singling out the gene in 1984, the team went on to identify a system of proteins linked to circadian rhythms and the role of period in determining how these proteins are built up or broken down over the course of a day.
“The discoveries made by our alumnus Michael Young have transformed what scientists and medical researchers know about the basic biological clock that dictates how living things — including people — function in rhythm with the rotation of our planet,” said Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a molecular bioscientist. “His legacy as a researcher has earned him this deserved prize. Dr. Young is a testament to the spirit of discovery that drives so many members of the Texas Science community.”