Circadian Rhythms, Fruit Flies and the Public Support of Basic Research
The last 35 years has seen a sea change in the field of circadian rhythms. This molecular era began with work in Drosophila (fruit flies), which has been a leading genetic system for more than 100 years. My colleagues and I discovered the mechanism that underlies circadian timing, and it turns out that this mechanism is conserved in all animals. In other words, the progress made in fruit flies is directly relevant to humans. Moreover, the circadian clock governs a large fraction of all gene expression, once again in humans as well as fruit flies. This explains why such a large fraction of animal physiology (biochemistry, metabolism, endocrinology, behavior, sleep etc.) is under circadian control. The circadian clock runs within only 75 pairs of neurons in the fly brain; this is much simpler than the clock system in the mammalian brain and is facilitating our current work. It is focused on trying to understand the relationship between circadian function in the brain and sleep. My field has been largely supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which remains critical for underwriting the foundation of health-related research.