Clock stops on NSF biological timing
center, but the momentum carries on
By Fariss Samarrai
11 years of groundbreaking research and more than $14 million
in direct funding from the National Science Foundation, the NSF
Center for Biological Timing,
a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research center headquartered
at U.Va., is, in effect, closing its doors as a center later this
year. The important work it has spearheaded in research and education
by Rebecca Arrington
Carla Green, a biology professor and center researcher, and
Michael Menaker, U.Vas Commonwealth Professor of Biology
and one of the centers founders
funds its science and technology centers for a maximum of 11 years,
and after that period, the funding discontinues, said Michael
Menaker, U.Va.s Commonwealth Professor of Biology
and one of the centers founders. As the center closes,
our researchers will continue their work with current sources
of individual funding. We also are seeking new grants from other
sources, including the National Institutes of Health.
been very fortunate to have this center based at U.Va. Its
been a great collaborative project for focused research in one
of the most important areas of biology.
NSF money, $1.3 million per year, provided infrastructure support
for the center and seed money for individual researchers, who
seek additional funding for their projects. This has allowed the
investigators to work individually while pooling their resources
through collaborations with the centers researchers at five
question, each researcher has been able to accomplish more individually
because of this network of shared work and resources, Menaker
Center for Biological Timing
focuses on researching circadian rhythms, the biological clocks
that keep time for the human body and all organisms on Earth.
These internal oscillators help us sleep, keep us awake, control
our energy levels, affect our growth, aging, our moods. They play
a large role in determining when plants flower, when cells divide,
when animals mate. Circadian rhythms were set in motion early
in the history of life on the planet, tied through evolution to
the astronomical cycles that effect Earths environment,
the rise and setting of the sun, the passing of seasons.
in biological timing has implications for many areas of human
life, from jet lag to shift work. A better understanding of the
internal clock could reduce accidents due to fatigue. Researchers
also are investigating ways to deliver drug treatments for cancer
and other diseases, timed to the peak rhythms of body clocks.
This new area, chronopharmacology, holds a great deal of promise
for more effective medicine, Menaker said.
the 1990s, little was known about the mechanisms underlying circadian
rhythms. Today, scientists know a great deal about biological
clocks at the molecular level, and much of this learning has come
from the work of researchers affiliated with the Center for Biological
Timing. The center brought together geneticists, molecular biologists,
endocrinologists and statisticians from Brandeis University, Rockefeller
University, Northwestern University, the Scripps Institute and
U.Va.s basic and medical science departments.
Center for Biological Timing was established in 1991, after U.Va.,
Rockefeller and Northwestern submitted a joint funding proposal
to NSF. A few years before that, several researchers at U.Va.
got the idea moving with a $2 million start-up grant from the
Board of Visitors, through its Academic Enhancement Program.
Local funds were the key to initiating the center,
Menaker said. We were able to bring together people from
the biology department and the Medical School and soon realized
we were onto something big. It all started with a little money
from the University to kick-start a few people with a great idea
there are 28 NSF Science and Technology Centers around the country.
The concept is to encourage and fund exploration in new areas
and build bridges among disciplines and institutions. Centers
offer the research community a means for embarking on long-term
scientific and technological research, to explore better ways
to educate students, and to ensure timely transition of research
and education advances to society.
accomplished this on all accounts, said Gene Block, U.Va.
vice president and provost and director of the center. This
was one of the first multi-university grants at U.Va., and it
taught us how to work effectively across institutional boundaries.
The center raised the national visibility of the University in
biological and medical research, and gave us reputational leverage
in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Japan.
also created novel outreach and collaboration models for integrating
university research with K-12 education, Block said. Throughout
our center history, high school teachers have been coming to our
labs and participating in research. They have gone on to present
this first-hand learning to their students. We also have sent
our researchers and educators to the schools. This has demonstrated
our larger role in the community.
importantly, the centers scientific accomplishments have
been spectacular. Weve done some high-risk research that
has paid off greatly; some of it has fundamentally changed our
understanding of biological processes.
of the centers biggest advances was the development of a
mutant mouse that allowed for the early identification of the
gene involved with setting the biological clock. This was groundbreaking
work that led to the discovery of other genes that regulate the
bodys periodic cycles.
at the U.Va. School
of Medicine have been investigating the neuroendocrine system
and how the release of hormones are tied to oscillations of the
body clock and reproduction. This research helps to explain how
exercise, sleep and aging affect human metabolism, and how internal
biological clocks affect hormones and fertility.
1997 and 1998, the highly regarded journal Science ranked the
findings of center researchers among the top 10 in biological
centers biggest accomplishment is our work in unraveling
the molecular mechanism underlying the generation of circadian
oscillation, Menaker said. Weve provided the
genetic tools to understanding the physiology of biological clocks.
have been able to determine, at the molecular level, the cogs
that control the timing of the clock, said Carla Green,
assistant professor of biology. Green uses the retina in the eyes
of frogs to study the mechanisms of the circadian clock at the
molecular level. Weve gone from knowing almost nothing,
to having a great deal of insight.