Posted on April 28, 2014
A time to work, a time to relax,
A time to eat, a time to refrain from eating...
Your body knows when it is time to do things like go to sleep, wake up, and eat, because it has a biological clock! Other animals, too, have biological clocks – as do plants, fungi and even cyanobacteria!
The biological clock we associate with daily routines such as sleeping and eating is called “circadian rhythm.” There are other “biological clocks” associated with seasonal or yearly rhythms. We even refer to a biological clock “ticking” when we talk about adults' ability and desire to have children.
I couldn't find out why today, of all days, is Biological Clock Day, but I do think it's a great excuse to learn more about this intriguing topic!
The biological clock has three parts.
The first part is the ability to sense changes in light and temperature; these cues are used to set the biological clock. As you can guess, our eyes and nerve endings are used to sense light and temperature. But it's interesting to note that blind animals that live in dark cave environments with steady temperatures still have circadian rhythms. Also, if you deprive people and other animals of light, you can disrupt their circadian rhythms to some extent, but they will develop new rhythms in absence of the usual cues.
The second part of the biological clock is what we can call “clock genes.” Scientists are trying to understand exactly how they work. New discoveries in this area will help us to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, and they may also help us fight cancer, because clock genes are used in cell production and cell suicide – and uncontrolled cell production and failure of cells to commit suicide are basically what defines cancer.
The third part of the biological clock is the genes that help the biological clock control the activity of other genes. Brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, and many other biological processes are all coordinated by the biological clock with the coordinating power of these genes.
Staying up all night, flying into another time zone, and using special “sun” lamps are all ways of messing with your biological clock. Jet lag and seasonal affective disorder (SAD, a problem many people have during sunless winters) are both examples of problems people experience with their circadian rhythms. Hopefully we will someday know enough about clock genes and the genes that help them control our bodily functions to develop better medicines and treatments of these and other problems.
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