Can the environment influence your circadian rhythm?



TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The circadian rhythm is generally defined as a genetically controlled sleep-wake cycle that repeats every 24 hours. It consists of core proteins that anticipate the day/night cycle to enhance health and well-being.

Many researchers found that the environment cannot alter our circadian rhythm, but one researcher has set out to challenge that notion. Jennifer Hurley, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is working on a new project tracing the mechanism between environmental signals and the circadian clock.

Research by Hurley shows that factors like aging and pollution can affect the control of the clock over biology. This demonstrates that while the circadian clock does have extensive influence over bodily functions, there is greater flexibility in the clock than researchers originally thought.

“What we’re finding is that while the circadian rhythms are tightly pegged to a 24-hour cycle, what the clock is controlling in the cell changes based on the environment,” said Hurley. “You can visualize this as a cuckoo clock that always keeps time, but has gears that engage or disengage the cuckoo bird based on the owner’s preference.”

Starting with the regulation of metabolism, Hurley is searching for points within the circadian clock to find genes that are responsive to environmental signals, such as an excess or lack of nutrients. To begin, she’s looking at the circadian rhythm of fungus.

Hurley and her team gathered data on the activity of genes in fungus over two days and were able to search for patterns. Their analysis showed that the patterns of certain environmentally responsive genes could predict the patterns of other circadian clock-controlled genes, indicating a link between circadian rhythm and the environment.

“We’re hypothesizing that we can use our analytical tools to identify metabolic reprogramming of genes that control physiological changes in a cell,” Hurley said. “An understanding of how this process works will allow us to understand how metabolism, and other environmental factors, can influence what the circadian clock controls.”

Hurley’s research is funded with an $817,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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