Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Jennifer Hurley, PhD, has been awarded a $2,116,990 grant over five years from the National Institutes of Health to delve deeper into the science behind circadian rhythms and their influence on health.

Jennifer Hurley, PhD
Photo credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

With daylight savings time ending soon, we anticipate a change in the timing of daylight hours with the sunrise occurring earlier in the morning. Already, too many of us get far too little sleep, and disruptions to our circadian cycles like those caused by daylight savings time transitions may make us feel more than tired and out of whack. In the end, there is significant medical data that shows that sudden day/night-time changes may even make us sick.

“Disruptions to our circadian rhythms have been linked to serious medical conditions such as neurological disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cancer,” says Hurley, the Richard Baruch MD Career Development Chair and associate department head of biological sciences who studies the impact of circadian rhythms on life at the cellular level, in a release. “Defining the molecular mechanisms that allow circadian rhythms to control our immunological response will help us to understand how disruptions in our circadian rhythms can affect our health and well-being.”

On the cellular level, circadian rhythms are controlled by a highly regulated, transcription-translation based negative feedback loop. It was long believed that transcription, the process by which DNA is copied into RNA, is what allowed the circadian clock to control biology. However, recent work from the Hurley lab showed that mechanisms beyond transcription also affected circadian biological control. However, how that process worked was unclear.

Now, scientists suspect that circadian regulation is accomplished more broadly and that translation (the process by which RNA is copied into proteins) also plays a role. With this grant, Hurley and her team will explore the extent of circadian post-transcriptional regulation, including the mechanistic underpinnings.

“We all understand the need for sleep because we know how it feels to be sleep-deprived, or we’ve at least experienced jet lag,” says Curt Breneman, PhD, dean of the Rensselaer School of Science, in a release. “With our modern lifestyles, disruptions in sleep cycles are commonplace. However, these disruptions may have a further-reaching effect on our health than most people realize. Dr Hurley’s research is critical to understanding the science behind the impacts of circadian disruption so that in the future, negative health impacts may be mitigated.”

The grant, a Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award, is given to select, promising researchers with the goal of increasing productivity and breakthroughs by providing “greater stability and flexibility.”

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