US body clock geneticists take 2017 Nobel Medicine Prize

The team’s work revealed the role of genes in setting the “circadian clock” which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones and body temperature, the Nobel committee said.

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“Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”

All life on Earth is tuned to the rotation of our planet. Scientists have long known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal timekeeper that helps them anticipate and adapt to the rhythm of the day.

Hall, 72, Rosbash, 73, and Young, 68, “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” the jury said.

They identified genes that regulate the clock, and the mechanism by which light can synchronise it.

Rosbash told Swedish Radio he was rattled when the committee’s call woke him from his sleep at 5:10 am.

“I was called on the landline next to my bed which never rings unless someone has died or something of this magnitude happens,” he recounted. “I was breathless, both literally and figuratively. My wife said: ‘Please start to breathe’.”

Young told reporters in New York the prize “really did take me by surprise.”

“I really had trouble even getting my shoes on this morning. You know, I’d go and pick up the shoes and then I’d realise I needed socks and then I’d realise I needed to put my pants on first.”

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A disrupted circadian clock is what causes jetlag — which happens when the internal clock and external environment move out of sync as people rapidly change time zones.

The clock also regulates sleep, which is critical for normal brain function. Circadian dysfunction has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive function, poor memory formation and some neurological diseases.

Studies have indicated that a chronic misalignment between a person’s lifestyle and the circadian clock — when doing irregular shift work, for example — might be associated with an increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders and inflammation.

Scientists are working hard on methods to alter the rhythm of errant clocks as a means to “improve human health,” the Nobel jury said.

Using the fruit fly as a model organism, this year’s laureates isolated a gene that controls the daily biological rhythm, called the period gene.

“They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night and is then degraded during the day,” the Nobel statement said.

“Subsequently they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.”

The three scientists will share the prize of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million or 937,000 euros).

“Just about every facet of our body changes predictably over the course of the day and night and these changes are driven by this internal timing mechanism,” Michael Hastings of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge told AFP.

“Every dimension of our health, every dimension of our personality or reactions to medicines, our reactions to disease are variable and are on the very precise programme set by this internal body clock,” he said.

Next up: Waves or exoplanets? 

Rosbash, born in 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri, to parents who had fled Nazi Germany, received his doctoral degree in 1970 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has since 1974 been on faculty at Brandeis University, where he worked closely with Hall on his prize-winning research. 

Hall had originally planned to attend medical school when he entered Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1963, but halfway through his bachelor’s degree his curiosity for medicine was replaced by one for basic science. 

He went on to earn his doctoral degree in 1971 at the University of Washington, before joining Brandeis University in 1974. He is now retired.

Young received his doctoral degree at the University of Texas in Austin in 1975, and has been on faculty at Rockefeller University in New York since 1978.

On Tuesday, the physics prize laureates will be revealed, with the discoveries of gravitational waves and exoplanets both regularly mentioned as possible winners. 

The chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, the literature prize on Thursday and the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize will wrap things up on Monday, October 9.

Palaszczuk ‘chill’ on election speculation

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has poured cold water on election speculation, telling journalists to “chill out” about when the election will be held.

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Late last week many observers were tipping the election would be called on Tuesday, but polls showing the government losing ground slightly to the opposition put the brakes on the momentum.

The premier on Tuesday seemed to rule out calling the election in the next fortnight, indicating the government would sit through the entirety of next week’s sitting of state parliament.

“The only people asking about the election, can I say, are journalists,” Ms Palaszczuk told reporters.

“Not one member of the public has come up to me and asked me about the election, so let’s stop the speculation, let’s everybody chill out and relax, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The government still has to pass a number of pieces of legislation, including introducing industrial manslaughter laws and expunging past homosexual convictions.

Deputy Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington hit out at the premier’s comments, labelling them “out of touch”.

“The Premier’s excuse today that she ‘has a lot of work to do’ is almost laughable given she has done nothing for nearly three years,” Ms Frecklington said.

The deputy opposition leader ironically hopes to win her regional seat of Nanango with the help of Labor preferences, with Labor’s decision to put One Nation last likely to send a number of votes her way and fend off a potential challenge by the minor party.

The data was in polling conducted by ReachTel, commissioned by unions and obtained by the Courier Mail, which Ms Frecklington said was “telling”.

“This shows how desperate the Labor government are to be releasing their own polling,” Ms Frecklington told reporters in Mackay.

While in addition to surging support in individual seats like Nanango, One Nation’s primary vote has again lifted to sit around 18 per cent statewide.

A second ReachTel poll also shows the government trailing the LNP 52-48 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.

The election is due by May at the latest, but has been widely tipped to be held before the end of the year.

However, with the government unlikely to hold a December election, the window available for the premier to call it this year and still hold a poll in November after a minimum 26-day campaign is starting to close.

Turnbull and gas giants seal supply deal

Big gas companies have cemented a promise Australia will not run short in the coming year after meeting with Malcolm Turnbull for the second time in a week.

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Santos, Origin Energy and Shell on Tuesday signed an initial agreement, arrived at last week, to offer enough gas to the local market to cover an expected shortfall in 2018.

“I want to thank you very much for those commitments and by ensuring that there will not be a shortfall of gas next year, that means we will not be required to place restrictions on exports,” the prime minister said in Canberra.

Zoe Yujnovich, from Shell Australia, is hopeful gas giants and the federal government can forge a path forward on gas supply after a heated few months of debate.

“There have been some difficult and tense moments and we appreciate the challenge that you’ve given to us,” Ms Yujnovich said during the meeting at Parliament House.

“We hope that through the heads of agreement, we can find a path forward to make sure that the domestic market is serviced and that indeed, there is enough available gas for the market, which we stand behind and are committed to deliver.”

The government has received two expert reports warning the eastern states faces a shortfall of between 54 and 108 petajoules of gas in 2018.

One petajoule is enough to meet the needs of all the households in Warrnambool in Victoria, Wollongong or Penrith in NSW, or a large industrial user for a full year.

While more than enough gas is being extracted across the country to meet domestic needs, most of it is tied up in export contracts and some companies had planned to sell another portion on international markets.

Tuesday’s talks were expected to focus on how to cover the shortfall if it reaches more than 100PJ, which could happen if there’s a run of bad weather preventing renewables from generating as much power as projected, or if a coal-fired generator unexpectedly breaks down.

Ministers see the deal over exports as a short-term fix for rising gas prices and have also been pressuring the states – especially NSW and Victoria – to ease restrictions on gas development and exploration.

They have raised the prospect that states which have gas reserves but don’t exploit them could lose some of their share of the GST under a review of the tax’s distribution.

Home approvals on track for gradual easing

Building approvals have risen slightly lower than expected in August despite a rebound in apartment permits, underlining the gradual easing in the housing construction sector.

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Approvals for new homes rose 0.4 per cent during the month, missing market expectations of a 1.2 per cent increase.

Approvals for private sector houses slipped 0.6 per cent in August, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed on Tuesday.

However, permits in the volatile ‘other dwellings’ category, which includes apartment blocks and townhouses, were 4.8 per cent higher in August at 8,496.

Although total dwelling approvals are down 15.5 per cent over the 12 months to August, economists said these are still at a relatively high level compared with past cycles.

“This high level of activity supports our view that the decline in residential construction cycle should be gradual and reasonably shallow,” CBA economist Kristian Clifton said.

“Strong and rising population growth means the demand for new housing remains firm and, despite the record number of new homes built in recent years, there is no sign of oversupply overall.”

Housing construction in Australia has also continued to be supported by record low interest rates, but rising household debt levels have increasingly worried regulators.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority tightened investor lending rules in March, forcing major lenders to increase rates and make investor loans more expensive.

As a result, approvals have trended lower across the four largest states of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA, but strong population growth has helped absorb new supply.

Tuesday’s figures showed approvals for the three largest capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane at negative annual rates, with the monthly decline steepest in Sydney, with dwelling approvals down 9.5 per cent in August.

ANZ economist Daniel Gradwell said recent data has indicated that the downturn in approvals is likely to be capped.

“This result provides further support to our view that the downturn in new approvals has largely run its course,” Mr Gradwell said.

“We continue to expect approvals to remain around these still-elevated levels, while a significant backlog of work will ensure construction activity remains solid for some time yet.”

The data helped push the Australian dollar down to 78.15 US cents at 1410 AEDT, from 78.29 US cents just before it was released.

It then dipped below 78 cents after the Reserve Bank held the central cash rate at 1.5 per cent.