Differences between larks and owls clocked by geneticists

A new study by researchers from the Department of Genetics has for the first time identified the genetic clues behind what makes you a ‘lark’ or an ‘owl’. Based on analysis of a fruit fly, the scientists have discovered nearly 80 genes associated with ‘morningness’ and ‘eveningness’.

Researcher Dr Eran Tauber, one of the three authors of the study which was published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology, said: “We have identified fly strains that exhibit morning - and evening - like behaviour. This allowed us to carry a global gene expression study on a scale which never had been done before. Diurnal preference was studied intensively in human, but not at the molecular level. This is the first study comparing gene expression in ‘lark’ and ‘owl’.

"Most people find that their performance is at peak at specific times of day. A great variation in this diurnal preference is found, from early risers ‘larks’ to late night ‘owls’. The impact of this preference (‘chronotype’) on health and behaviour is well documented, but the molecular basis is largely unknown. 

“In this new study, we have used fruit-flies, whose gene clocks are very similar to human, to get a first insight into the molecular basis of ‘morningness/eveningness’ preference. Because this genetic system is so similar between insects and human, there is a good chance that some of the genes that we have identified in flies, would be also important for diurnal preference in humans. 

“Most of these genes are present in the mammalian genome and would therefore be useful starting points for research in human. For example, a relatively large number of genes were associated with a molecular signalling pathway called MAPK which is also present in human and is implicated in the development of many cancers.”

Dr Tauber worked with Dr Ezio Rosato and Professor Bambos Kyriacou in the Department of Genetics.  Their work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).