From the time we eat breakfast to when we leave work, mechanical clocks control a large part of our lives. But we, and other creatures, also have biological clocks that regulate just about every function in our bodies.
Scientists know our biological clocks are coordinated — from our daily rhythms to our metabolism, and the growth, development and death of cells — but they aren’t sure how. Using a $14 million grant from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a team of biologists and mathematicians at Duke and other universities will be looking more closely at the timepieces that drive life.
One specific DARPA application would be to adjust soldiers’ biological clocks when they travel, to speed recovery from jetlag or slow down their metabolism after an injury. There’s also interest in the signals that genes and cells send to each other, despite a lot of noise from their surroundings. If scientists can figure out how timing signals are sent, that could be useful for improving the way we send, receive and decipher our own communication signals, Harer says.
With the DARPA grant, Harer has assembled some of the world’s leading experts on the cell cycle, the circadian clock, the metabolism of yeast, root growth in plants and pulsing processes in bacteria, to deconstruct the molecular and genetic rhythms that keep these organisms alive.
One of the most challenging goals is to identify the specific genes that turn each type of biological clock on and off and what signals those genes send with each on-off switch, Harer says. The other challenge is to identify what role each gene plays in the clock and whether it would be a good indicator of the position of that clock in its cycle. They might, for example, find a gene that controls the circadian clock, and then study it further to find out whether it’s six in the morning or six at night, according to that organism’s clock.
If scientists can isolate the genes, molecules and signals of these different biological clocks, they could find ways to control and repair them if they are broken or damaged, Harer says. They could then use that information to better understand and control specific groups of cells, organisms and possibly even systems within our bodies. Harer says scientists may also be better able to explain a variety of other observations, such as the connection between sleep problems and cancer.