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What is Chronobiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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Chronobiology is a highly interdisciplinary branch of the sciences which is concerned with the study of biological rhythms and cyclic processes in living organisms, including animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi. People who work in this field can apply it in a number of ways, ranging from treating patients with sleep disorders to studying the processes involved in the development of mold colonies. Some examples of fields integrated into chronobiology include: molecular genetics, anatomy, physiology, behavior, physics, cell biology, and chemistry.

Many living organisms have some form of an internal clock. This clock regulates a huge number of biological cycles which occur on a regular basis, and are often time dependent. Many of the processes in the body follow very specific timelines, such as the 90 minute REM cycle in sleeping humans, or the process of cell division in numerous animals. The internal clock is able to regulate a wide variety of processes, and its function can be influenced by environmental and genetic factors.

Researchers look at the impact of the environment on biological rhythms, studying lunar and solar rhythms and looking at the role of diet, behavior, and other activities on internal time keeping. Chronobiologists study topics such as what causes internal rhythms to be thrown out of whack, how cycles can be disrupted artificially to achieve various desired goals, and how normal cycles can be restored after a disruption. They are also interested in the evolutionary processes which underlie cyclical biological processes.

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Chronobiologists can be found in the field and the lab, working with a wide variety of living organisms. Understanding the time-dependent processes involved in development and ordinary functioning can be very important to understanding an organism, or to tracking down clues which provide information about a particular organism, ecosystem, or interconnected network. Chronobiology can even be used in forensics; for example, a researcher can use known time-dependent events such as the life cycle of insects to determine time of death.

One area of particular interest in chronobiology is sleep disorders. Sleep disorders can be observed in humans all over the world, and they are highly variable. Researchers hope to understand what causes sleep disorders so that they can learn more about potential treatments, and they are also interested in the environmental and cultural pressures which cause fundamental alterations in biological patterns. For example, a night shift worker must develop a very different internal clock from the one he or she was born with, and understanding how this happens can be illuminating for a chronobiology researcher.

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ceilingcat
Post 2

@SZapper - I've heard that too. Very interesting. I've also read that artificial light messes with our internal clocks if you can believe it!

I believe they did a study a few years ago where they had a group of people live for awhile without artificial light. Their sleeping patterns were a bit different that the sleeping patterns of most people these days. If I remember right, they went to bed much earlier, even before the magic hour of 10 P.M.

SZapper
Post 1

I am so fascinated by the idea of the internal clock! I used to kind of scoff at the idea, but I really think there is something to it.

I've heard over and over again that the best time to sleep is from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. However, I worked as a waitress in bars for years, during in college and for awhile after. I would get off work at 2:30 or 3 A.M. and sometimes not get to sleep until 4:30 or 5! I wasn't really sleeping during any of the "optimal" hours!

I always thought that I was perfectly healthy, but now that I've switched over to working regular 9 to 5 hours, I feel so much more energetic! I seriously never realized how tired I was all the time. I guess I was so used to it, it seemed normal.

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