That internal nagging feeling that drives you to seek sleep at night and wake in the morning to eat, work, and play, is, it turns out, genetic, and it’s not just in people. Nearly every living organism – from animals to plants as well as several microorganisms and fungi – has an internal body clock, or a circadian rhythm.
Yet, scientists have been perplexed out how these genes operate. Now, Virginia Tech scientists have taken a step closer to an answer thanks to the DNA of a mouse, a petri dish, and much patience. In a new study published in the journal Genes & Development, Shihoko Kojima, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, and a researcher with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and her team has identified a novel gene, Per2AS, that controls the sleep/wake cycle in mice. Per2AS appears to be a new type of gene, known as a non-coding gene. Unlike most other genes, Per2AS is not translated from RNA into a subsequent protein, thus making its function unclear until now.
The study has been in the works for several years. Nine, exactly. Why the long tenure? Well, it’s complicated. Literally. “It was difficult to find out what its job is because Per2AS was a noncoding gene,” Kojima said. “Scientists have accumulated a lot of knowledge and tools to figure out the function of traditional genes. However, these tools cannot be readily applicable to nontraditional genes, such as Per2AS, because most tools are made based on the unique characteristics common to traditional genes.”