A long-studied factor controlling human sleep cycles actually has two forms, one that keeps a key protein stable and another that promotes its degradation.

The circadian clock is a series of tightly controlled cycles of specific amounts of proteins that make us either sleepy or wakeful. But numerous aspects of the clock’s functions or how it regulates our health remain a mystery.

One of the first circadian rhythm sleep disorders to be discovered was Familial Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome, or FASPS. Patients with this condition fall asleep early in the evening, around 7 pm, and wake up in the early mornings, around 3 am, and are thus unable to adjust to standard cycles without undergoing treatment.

“FASPS is characterized by a mutation in the gene that codes for a protein essential for the circadian clock, called Period 2, or PER2,” explains corresponding author Jean-Michel Fustin from Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Science, in a release. “The stability of the PER2 protein is a key factor in determining how fast your circadian clock ticks.”

In FASPS patients, PER2 is unstable, resulting in a sped-up clock. This is due to a mutation that changes one amino acid in the protein from a serine to a glycine.

“The stability of PER2 is regulated by the phosphorylation of several critical amino acids—a common way proteins are regulated in the body. This process is conducted by other proteins called kinases,” Fustin says. “We knew of a kinase that could destabilize PER2—Casein kinase 1 delta, or CK1D—but we couldn’t find one that could stabilize it by phosphorylating the serine that is mutated in FASPS patients.”

Writing in PNAS, Fustin and his collaborators explain that the stabilizing kinase was within the Ck1d gene itself all along. Their findings show that in addition to destabilizing PER2, Ck1d has another form, one that does the exact opposite.

While structurally very similar, these two kinase forms are named CK1D1 and CK1D2.

“The opposite activity of CK1D2 was completely unexpected. These two versions of this kinase can be likened to the kind Dr Jekyll—CK1D2—and the destroyer Mr Hyde—CK1D1,” Fustin says. “While in many cases the same gene can code for different proteins, such a stark difference in function is rare.”

co-corresponding author Hitoshi Okamura, says, “Circadian clock mechanisms can be found in bacteria, insects, plants, and vertebrates. Understanding these fundamental mechanisms allows us to understand our relationship with the rhythmic environment. Our discoveries indicate that the circadian clock can be adjusted between these kinases, and provides new targets for the treatment of circadian disorders.”

The paper “Two Ck1? transcripts regulated by m6A methylation code for two antagonistic kinases in the control of the circadian clock” appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; it is accompanied by a second paper “CK1?/? protein kinase primes the PER2 circadian phosphoswitch” appearing in the same journal. These discoveries were made jointly with a team from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, led by David M Virshup.

Illustration by Kyoto University / Jean-Michel Fustin