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Circadian rhythm-controlling 'clock genes' could be tweaked to alter sleep

Scientists may soon by able to influence a person's "clock genes" and alter their innate sleep patterns. Photo by Wokandapix/Pixabay
Scientists may soon by able to influence a person's "clock genes" and alter their innate sleep patterns. Photo by Wokandapix/Pixabay

May 4 (UPI) -- Researchers have identified a complex combination of genes that control the human body's circadian rhythms, the rhythms that help sync a variety of biological processes with both day-night and seasonal patterns.

Scientists were able to identify the network of "clock genes," described Tuesday in the journal Applied Physics Reviews, using an advanced statistical model.

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With assistance from geneticists, biologists and medical researchers, the authors of the new paper hope to work out how individual clock genes work together to influence circadian rhythms.

Eventually, scientists might be able to alter the way a person's clock genes are expressed in order to shift their sleep patterns.

"If we understand the gene for a night owl, we can develop a drug to activate that gene for an early bird who has to live a lifestyle like a night owl," study author Rongling Wu, director of the Center for Statistical Genetics at Penn State University, said in a press release.

Because the body's internal clocks operate at both small scales, within individual cells, and large scales, across whole physiological systems, it's quite difficult to untangle the relationships between different clock genes and circadian rhythms.

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That's why scientists turned to complex statistical mechanics.

"The implementation of sophisticated statistical models into genetic mapping studies can not only identify key clock genes or clock quantitative trait loci, but also, more importantly, reveal a complete atlas of the genetic control mechanisms constituted by gene interactomes," researchers wrote.

Proper sleep patterns are vital to human health, and dozens of studies have identified links between disrupted circadian rhythms and depression, anxiety, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

One recent study even found nighttime shift work can prematurely age the brain.

Other studies have highlighted the role of circadian rhythms in other living organisms, including insects, plants and even bacteria.

Scientists suggest plant clock genes could be tweaked to boost crop resiliency and production.

For example, researchers could alter the clock genes of a less versatile crop variety to help it grow more efficiently in a broader range of climates and latitudes, where sunlight and day length varies.

"We can increase our production," Wu said. "If we can activate the correct gene, we can use all of that time. But we need to bring together different researchers from other fields to better understand such a complex problem."

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