President's Lecture Series — Oct. 13, 2011

September 2011

Refusing to wait until the work seemed easy helped make Dr. Joseph S. Takahashi an internationally recognized authority on what makes our bodies’ clocks tick. Dr. Takahashi, Chairman of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will discuss “Living Clocks: Biology in the Fourth Dimension,” Thursday, Oct. 13, at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

The daily cycles guided by the body’s clocks – yes, plural – affect our ability to get a good night’s sleep, how fast we recover from jet lag and even the best time to give cancer treatments, he said

“Modern society is putting unusual strain on our biological clocks,” Dr. Takahashi said. “Our clocks didn’t evolve to switch many time zones rapidly or to have rotating shift schedules.”

Starting in the 1990s, Dr. Takahashi began investigating a series of problems that other scientists had labeled too difficult to tackle. In the first of those studies, he conducted a behavioral study on mice to find some whose biological clocks seemed out of sync. He screened hundreds of rodents and in 1994 found one mutant whose daily cycle was four hours longer than the norm, aptly named the Clock mutant.

This mouse mutant then was used to identify the world’s first circadian rhythm gene in a mammal when his laboratory team cloned the Clock gene in 1997 – the second goal that many predicted would be too tough to succeed. All it took was time, he said. In this particular case, the effort included 10 researchers working full time for three years, slowly assembling the gene bit by bit.

Last year, his lab – in collaboration with Dr. Joseph T. Bass at Northwestern University – reported in Nature that disruptions in two genes related to circadian (daily) rhythms can disrupt the release of insulin by the pancreas in mice, resulting in diabetes.

Dr. Takahashi’s investigations have helped unravel the gene networks underlying circadian clocks and have shown that most body organs such as the pancreas and liver have their own internal clocks and that virtually every cell in the human body contains a clock.

It now appears that the clocks and clock-related genes – about 20 such genes have been identified – affect virtually all of the cells’ metabolic pathways, from blood sugar regulation to cholesterol production.

About the Speaker

Joseph Takahashi, Ph.D., elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, is Chairman of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UT Southwestern. A faculty member since April 2009, Dr. Takahashi holds the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience. Dr. Takahashi’s journey of noted scientific research began when, as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, he discovered that some species of electric fish discharged current only at night. He continued to study circadian rhythms while in graduate school at UT Austin and the University of Oregon, where he received his doctorate in 1981. Dr. Takahashi completed postdoctoral work at the National Institute of Mental Health before joining the Northwestern University faculty in 1983. 

Dr. Takahashi is the author of more than 200 scientific publications and the recipient of many awards, including the Honma Prize in Biological Rhythms Research, the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Searle Scholars Award. He was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000. He served as Director of the Center for Functional Genomics at Northwestern before joining UT Southwestern.