As the World Turns

As the earth spins through day and night, all living creatures—from the smallest bacteria to the largest of whales—cycle through dramatic changes in the environment. Of course we know sleeping and waking, but that barely scratches the surface when it comes to all things circadian (from the Latin circa [“about”] and dies [“day”]). In fact, an entire field of biology is devoted to studying circadian rhythm and its effect on the many facets of our daily, and nightly, lives.

Circadian biologists are especially attuned to influences on a microscopic level—the daily orchestration of changes in hormones and proteins that allow living creatures to function, survive and thrive. In humans, circadian rhythm governs so many functions of our body that disruptions to this rhythm are thought to pose a higher risk of disease, including cardiac disorders, cancers and infertility.

Such research potential led Professor Emeritus Stuart Brody to establish UC San Diego’s Center for Circadian Biology, which has become a hub for researchers around the world seeking to uncover how the essential aspects of physiology and behavior correspond to daily and seasonal cycles. And just as circadian rhythm affects everything under the sun, the center is well known for cross collaboration, between disciplines as well as campuses.

“When we started this, I said, ‘Let’s pull everyone together. We’ll learn about sleep from the sleep scientists and they’ll learn about circadian biology from us.’ And it worked,” says Brody. “It’s become a center for the entire UC system, and it has stimulated collaborations among faculty members between UC campuses.”

Brody himself specializes in the circadian biology of fungi. But studies on plants, bacteria and fruit flies are helping scientists unravel the genetic and biochemical machinery that control the timing of not only our sleep-wake cycles, but metabolism and immune function, as well as likelihood of disease. “Obesity and metabolism are likely the number one area of promise for circadian research, and cancer is number two,” says David Welsh, the acting director of the Center for Circadian Biology. “Mental health, especially the treatment of mood disorders and cognitive decline, also shows potential.”

Even students are getting in on circadian action. In 2014, the center’s director Susan Golden launched the BioClock Studio, an innovative program wherein undergraduate students across diverse disciplines create multimedia pieces, interactive videos and creative graphics to explain circadian biology to other students, as well as the general public.

Graphic design student Paul Llanura was among the 250 students who enroll in the BioClock Studio course each year. “Creating educational materials is a good opportunity to learn about applying the arts to scientific research,” he says, “and I hope to create something that has a beneficial impact to other students.”