COLLEGE STATION — Feeling run down and less energetic these days? Perhaps you’ve hit the snooze button one too many times on your biological clock, according to biologists at Texas A&M University.
Texas A&M University
Friday, June 17, 2011
Previous research by Texas A&M’s rich campus-wide cadre of experts in biological clocks, cellular communication and neuroscience has shown that many of the biological processes in a wide range of organisms involve metabolic genes controlled by their cellular clocks. These experts note their discoveries clearly indicate that one of the clock’s central purposes is to control metabolism. Likewise, they say there is strong evidence to suggest that an underlying cause for many health-related problems in humans might stem from ignoring the biological clock.
Dr. Mark J. Zoran, professor of biology and a member of Texas A&M’s world-renowned Center for Biological Clocks Research (CBCR) and the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience (TAMIN), points to the rise in childhood obesity as one alarming example.
“We aren’t too many generations removed from the days when people stopped their activity when the sun went down,” Zoran explains. “Now people stay awake, and they’re also eating and drinking sugar — getting all kinds of calories at times when our biological clocks are not used to having to deal with them.
“People don’t sleep or eat right — two of the most basic requirements of proper health, “ he adds. “We’re trying to come up with best health practices by studying the brain, where clocks meet neuroscience, and what essentially is the engine of how this works — what ‘drives’ the human body’s regulation of its energy production, its release of important metabolic signals and their related system-level communication. We’re like the mechanic who tells you what’s wrong with your car based on his knowledge of fluid mechanics, internal combustion and other processes. In this case, though, we’re writing the manual for clock-related health as we go along.”
Zoran has been tag-teaming this task for more than a decade with biologist Dr. David J. Earnest, a joint professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics in the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and a fellow member of the CBCR and TAMIN, to unlock many secrets of a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a structure whose study benefits from the intersection of these two neuroscientists’ respective specialties in neural-cellular communication and biological clocks.
Their latest effort, reported in the June 8 edition of “The Journal of Neuroscience,” details recent discoveries by Jeff Burkeen and Alisa Womac, graduate students in Zoran’s laboratory, about the SCN and its biological clock functions. Using brain cells that Earnest isolated, immortalized and cryogenically preserved a decade ago to create an SCN cell line, Burkeen and Womac found that the brain cell’s clock directs mitochondria — the body’s workhorses that produce its energy in the form of a chemical known as ATP — to make and release this chemical rhythmically to enable cellular communication within the brain and possibly orchestrate rhythmic metabolism throughout the body.
“The biological clock is controlling the energetics of the brain and perhaps also controlling how cells are communicating among each other the energy state of the brain,” Zoran explains. “This is important because more and more is being learned every day about the brain, how it controls metabolism and its links to metabolic diseases.
“This collaboration between my lab and the Earnest lab led to the first discovery of rhythmic ATP-related regulation in the brain, but it’s possible we’ve also come across a mechanism that might be much more widespread. Instead of it being just a brain phenomenon, it might be common to many cells and tissues of the body, because such ATP signaling might be needed to control or orchestrate an organism’s proper physiology or to avoid the dire consequences otherwise.”
Having the luxury of an on-demand “rat brain’s clock in a dish,” as Zoran describes it, provides experimental control and power of resolution that his lab has been exploiting in recent years to the dual benefit of the researchers’ purposes and the overall neuroscience profession. He says the implications of this latest National Institutes of Health-funded breakthrough are many, from possible treatments for metabolic-related conditions like obesity and diabetes, which involve many tissues including liver, fat and pancreatic cells, to remedial measures involving the biological clock with the potential to create health benefits for people at risk.
“The brain is an important regulator of body tissues and of the nutrients we take in when we eat — how they are converted, utilized and stored,” he says. “The biological clock is playing an important role in these processes, so it’s not surprising that people with altered clocks and metabolism, such as shift workers, are at a much higher risk for developing diabetes and becoming obese.”
Zoran says the team’s analysis of the rat clock as well as findings related to other model systems studied by researchers associated with the CBCR and Health Science Center will become part of the preliminary data that will be used to support an NIH Program Project Grant (PO1) proposal to be submitted later this year. The group’s current program project grant, awarded in 2001 and renewed in 2005, ends this summer.
“If we can figure out the basic mechanism of clocks across organisms and how they influence those organisms’ metabolisms, then we can apply this knowledge to improve human, animal and plant health,” Zoran explains. “This is why our broader research team is composed of scientists from such diverse colleges, including Science, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Medicine.”
The Journal of Neuroscience is a weekly publication of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), a Washington, D.C.-based professional society founded in 1969 for basic scientists and physicians around the world whose research is focused on the study of the brain and nervous system. With a membership that exceeds 40,000, it is the largest neuroscience society in the world. To learn more about the SfN, visit http://www.sfn.org/.
For additional information on Zoran’s research, visit http://www.bio.tamu.edu/FACMENU/FACULTY/ZoranM.php.
To learn more about biological clocks research at Texas A&M, visit http://biology.tamu.edu/clocks/.
For more information on Texas A&M’s interdisciplinary program in neuroscience, go to http://tamin.tamu.edu/.