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Scientists find receptor for molecule that helps synchronize fly's internal clocks

Washington University In St Louis : 22 July, 2006  (Company News)
Scientists have identified a receptor protein that helps the fruit fly know when to start and shut down its day, a step that should help them learn more about internal clocks in higher organisms such as humans.
WUSM scientists have identified a protein that helps keep internal 'clocks' in sync.
Neuroscientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis identified a receptor for pigment-dispersing factor protein, which scientists previously had recognized as a molecule that helps keep different internal 'clocks' synchronized.

'Daily rhythms regulated by biological clocks shape our lives in important ways, affecting a wide range of functions including sleep, body temperature, cognitive ability, mood and sensitivity to drugs,' says lead author Paul Taghert, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology. 'Because these timekeeping processes have been highly conserved through evolution, what we learn from flies and other organisms often helps us better understand the same systems in higher organisms.'

For example, studies of fruit flies already have helped scientists identify a human gene for advanced phase sleep syndrome, a human disorder that puts sufferers to sleep at what is normally suppertime and promotes their waking at 3 or 4 a.m.

Taghert's group was one of three to independently report identification of the PDF receptor in a recent issue of Neuron.

Paul Taghert
Clock cells contain a handful of proteins that interact with each other in ways that increase and decrease their own levels in the cell at various times during the course of a day. The cycle naturally repeats itself every 24 hours. Through their connections with other nerve cells and other types of tissues, clock cells regularly trigger or suppress certain physiological processes during the course of the day. Biologists call these daily patterns circadian rhythms.

Taghert's lab identifies the clock cells in fruit fly brains and traces their connections to other cells and tissues in hopes of better understanding how they affect characteristics such as the morning and evening activity peaks normally seen in fruit flies.

'We look at where the branches of these cells go, what signals they release and when they release them, and who is listening,' Taghert explains. 'We want to follow the chains of cells that respond to signals from the clock cells. We're hoping that path doesn't get too complicated too fast.'

Working with the short-lived fruit fly, a classic model for circadian biology, allows manipulation of genes with potential circadian links and rapid assessment of the resulting effects on new generations of flies. Such manipulations helped scientists identify Period, the first gene associated with circadian rhythms. Humans have three genes analogous to Period, one of which is mutated in a critical region in patients with advanced phase sleep syndrome.
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