Mind body

A genetic tool could bring a pill that turns night owls into early risers

6 min read
In a new study, scientists predict a pill could turn night owls into early birds.
Picture plants that bloom year-round. A plane trip to China followed by no jet lag. Waking up at dawn to easily begin a workday.

In a not-so-distant future, these scenarios could be reality.

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Applied Physics Reviews, researchers from Pennsylvania and Beijing present a statistical model for identifying the key drivers of our circadian rhythms: clock genes. Critically, this approach allows scientists to pinpoint the complex networks associated with clock genes, which determine how plants, animals, and humans interact biologically with time.

"Based on these networks, we can identify the road map of how the genes interact with other genes to determine the circadian rhythm," Rongling Wu, the senior author of the study, tells Inverse. Wu is the Director of the Center for Statistical Genetics in the departments of public health sciences and statistics at Pennsylvania State University.

This model (which works in tandem with software) is essentially a tool capable of processing vast quantities of genetic information. And it could potentially pave the way for gene editing or drugs with wide applications — ranging from drugs that could help night owls become early birds to a way to drastically increase the yield of certain crops.

What you need to know first — All living creatures, including people, follow a kind of biological schedule that's determined by our genes and their response to the environment around us. For most, that cycle lasts around 24 hours (coastal marine mammals operate off a 12-hour cycle).

"... we can identify the road map of how the genes interact with other genes to determine the circadian rhythm."

People operate off that 24-hour cycle, or circadian rhythm. It's why we crave sleep when it's dark and perk up when the sun rises. But it's more than bedtime — it's a complex set of events that originates in our DNA and is responsible for the slowing of our heart rate, the production of melatonin, and the blood…
Sophie Putka
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