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Tinkering with the Biological Clock

Patrice A. Salomé, Ph.D. Candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology

Patrice Salomé says that anyone who has ever suffered from jet lag knows what circadian rhythms involve. Animals and plants have an internal clock that they use to tell them how to behave at certain times during the day. Through a complex array of chemical signals, a flower knows to open at daybreak and a human feels sleepy at bedtime—except when these signals are disrupted.

Salomé says that seasonal changes, travel, changes in temperature and perhaps several unknown factors affect the way the circadian rhythms function. His research tries to collect evidence on the genetic controls that set our internal clocks.

“Basically we try messing it up so we can see what happens,” he says. “We grow plants with missing genes and subject them to unnatural conditions to see how they react. If one of our mutant plants doesn’t behave the way we expect it to, then we know that the missing gene has something to do with its clock.”

Salomé’s current research, conducted in the lab of C. Robertson McClung, Professor of Biology, relies on a particular weed in the mustard family—Arabidopsis— modified with the gene that causes fireflies to glow. When the plants are subjected to varying conditions the firefly gene allows Salomé to gauge changes in Arabidopsis’ internal clock. Though access to light plays a big role in circadian rhythms, Salomé is exploring the surprising effects of temperature as well.

“I think over the last 10 years, as we’ve been studying circadian rhythms, our knowledge has vastly increased and we’re finally now becoming able to make some hypotheses about how plants will respond, then go out and test them,” he says.

“We grow plants with missing genes and subject them to unnatural conditions to see how they react. If one of our mutant plants doesn’t behave the way we expect it to, then we know that the missing gene has something to do with its clock.”

 
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