If any non-human deserves a Nobel Prize, it’s the common fruit fly, according to a newly minted Nobel laureate and Maine retiree who used the tiny insect to unlock the mystery of the biological clock.
Given the amount of ridicule he once received for his research on the tiny insects, former University of Maine Professor Jeffrey Hall said he originally thought his own Nobel Prize announcement may have been a prank.
The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half, but Hall was already an hour into his morning routine when a 5 a.m. phone call broke the quiet at his Cambridge, Maine, home Monday. The caller said he was from Sweden (and had the accent to match), apologized for calling so early and said he hoped he hadn’t roused Hall from his sleep.
“I’m very old,” said Hall, 72, “Old people go to bed early and wake up very early, so it’s fine.”
Pleasantries concluded, the caller got to the point — he was part of the organization that hands out Nobel Prizes, and Hall and two of his colleagues had been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Psychology or Medicine. Hall wasn’t convinced it wasn’t a prank until the Nobel Prize Assembly posted the official announcement later that morning.
“Unexpected and much appreciated,” Hall said during a phone interview later that morning.
Hall, who was born in New York, spent 35 years of his career as a researcher and educator at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, before moving to Maine to briefly teach and then retire. During decades of research, Hall and two colleagues, Michael Rosbash of Brandeis and Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University, zeroed in on a tiny insect that has revealed an incredible amount about the inner workings of much larger, more complex creatures.
Previous researchers discovered that most living organisms have a biological clock that allows them to anticipate and adapt to daily changes in their environment. That holds true for plants that turn their leaves open to the sun during the day and turn them over at dusk, and continue doing so even if they’re taken into a dark room where there’s no sunlight to be found. It also holds true for humans, who experience jet lag after sudden changes in time zone and fall out of sorts if normal food or sleep schedules are interrupted.
These creatures all had a rhythm, a biological clock, but no one had determined why that rhythm existed or how exactly it worked.
Hall and his colleagues spent decades trying to answer that question using one of a geneticist’s most useful subjects — the fruit fly. Fruit flies are “genetically accessible,” meaning that their genome is heavily explored and well understood. They also reproduce quickly and in large numbers, making them useful for study, and they feed on relatively clean matter, unlike larger flies that rely on dung or rotten meat. Hall said his lab gave the fruit flies Indian pudding.
The team isolated a gene within the fruit fly that controls their normal daily rhythm. Inside that gene, they discovered a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, then slowly degrades during the day, creating a rhythm that triggered biological responses based on changes in their environment.
As years passed, more and more researchers found that this same genetic process played out in species of all sorts, from small and simple to large and complex.
“We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans,” the Nobel Assembly said in its award summary.
Throughout much of their research, Hall said he and his colleagues were ridiculed for their work. Some biologists believed that it was a waste of time trying to answer these questions of biology through genetic research.
“One upside of that disparagement was that there was no competition,” Hall said. “No one else was approaching this question the way we were.”
Hall said no one in the group believed their research would carry such significant implications.
“Frankly, it surprised me,” Hall said. Their research was largely completed and published in the early 2000s.
After that, Hall started to contemplate retirement, he decided to take a sabbatical and come to Cambridge, Maine, where one of his longtime friends and colleagues, now-retired UMaine biologist Harold “Dusty” Dowse, lived.
Hall decided to move to the tiny, rural municipality about 15 minutes west of Dexter. Cambridge has no discernable downtown and about 500 residents, but Hall said the place charmed him, and he’d rather enjoy retirement here than in “this doleful housing development where I’d long lived in Boston.”
He’s been in Cambridge ever since, sharing his home with seven rowdy jack russell terriers who barked for attention in the background during his interview.
Once in Maine, Hall served as a visiting professor at the University of Maine, which is largely an honorific title. In 2008, UMaine asked him to teach a genetics course, which he did for two years.
The quiet country life was something quite different from what he was used to, and he wanted to give it a try. Winter never bothered him, he said, and he likes seeing the three other seasons in full effect in Maine’s diverse climate.
Hall said he’s not too bothered if fruit flies pop up in his home. While many people consider them a nuisance pest, they don’t make an audible buzzing sound like their larger relatives, and they don’t carry disease.
“Plus, they’re cute as a button if you look at them under a microscope,” he added with a chuckle.
Hall said there’s much more humans can learn from fruit flies. He was involved in research at Brandeis exploring the neurogenetics behind fruit fly mating and courtship behaviors, but the grant money eventually dried up. Hall wonders what that research might have revealed about the mating of other species, including ours.
That question will be left to the next generation of researchers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Hall was born.