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UW-W research to investigate body’s natural rhythm

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Kayla Bunge
June 9, 2010
— Anyone who suffers from interrupted sleep, works third shift or flies across multiple time zones should pay close attention to the research of Kristen Curran.

The UW-Whitewater biology professor recently secured a $200,000-plus grant from the National Science Foundation for a three-year project investigating the circadian rhythm, or 24-hour cycle, of body organs.


Curran said a “master clock” in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain regulates the body. She said organs and tissues also are regulated by their own clocks, and that those clocks keep an approximately 24-hour cycle that’s in line with the light/dark cycle.


“The timekeeper in the brain synchronizes it all,” she said. “Everything in your body is attuned to the light/dark cycle.”


Curran said the brain adjusts pretty quickly to the two-hour time change from Wisconsin to California, for example, but the stomach, kidneys and other organs adjust more slowly because they have their own circadian rhythm.


“That’s why some people might not feel quite right after they travel across time zones,” she said. “That’s jet lag. That’s why people feel strange at daylight saving time, too.”


Curran wants to find out how the rhythms of organs and tissues synchronize with the rhythm of the brain and the external environment during embryonic development.


She will look at the embryonic development of frogs to learn when the eye, ear, nose, heart and kidney display a fully functional circadian rhythm. She will use a molecular approach to measure time-of-day-dependent changes in gene expression in developing organs to figure out when they exhibit a mature circadian rhythm.


“We know there are genes that turn on at one time of day and turn off at another,” she said. “When we see that, we know we’ve got something that might be circadian.”


Curran also wants to find out whether circadian rhythm is necessary for proper organ development.


Again she will look at the embryonic development of frogs. And she again will use a molecular approach—this time to change the amount of a specific protein available in the cells of the embryo and analyze the effects on somite formation.


Somites are blocks of tissue formed in pairs on each side of the developing spinal cord at regular intervals during vertebrate development. Somites form the muscle and skin of the back and vertebrae in the adult.


“We might show that these genes can time other things,” she said. “They might have functions that are not just circadian but also multifunctional during early development.”


Curran said disruption of the body’s natural 24-hour rhythm has been linked to disruption of basic metabolism, cardiovascular disease and cancer. She said research has shown that insomniacs, late-shift workers and frequent fliers have a greater risk of heart and kidney disease because the rhythms of the body are out of sync.


She said her research into circadian rhythm in the developing embryo would add to existing research and could help people understand how to adapt to time changes and interruptions and reduce the stress on their bodies.


Curran plans to use the National Science Foundation grant to buy lab equipment and hire up to a dozen students to conduct research and gain experience in developmental and molecular biology.



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