"Gene" is a word used often in today's world - gene pool, gene therapy. genetics. But what, exactly is a gene?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an excellent definition : "A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Genes, which are made up of DNA, act as instructions to make molecules called proteins. In humans, genes vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to more than 2 million bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes."
Scientists have discovered that the fruit fly undergoes molecular changes similar to that experienced by mammals. In fact, it shares some of the patterns that govern the sleep and waking cycles in humans. Scientists have already discovered that a fly's sleep is altered by caffeine and antihistamines, and that sleep deprivation leads to a desire to make up the lost sleep time. Fruit flies were used in mapping the genome of humans.
The National Genome Research Institute tells us: "The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes - together known as the genome - of members of our species, Homo sapiens. Completed in April 2003, the HGP gave us the ability to, for the first time, to read nature's complete genetic blueprint for building a human being."
From this research, scientists have discovered that several sleep disorders are gene related. After nearly 40 years of research on narcolepsy, a Stanford-led team has identified a gene that causes the sleep disorder narcolepsy - a breakthrough that brings a cure for this disabling condition within reach, the scientists say.
Narcolepsy is characterized by recurrent attacks of sleepiness during the day. It is a debilitating and disabling disorder. Routine tasks are done automatically and often the sufferer may not remember doing them. Narcolepsy can cause many problems. It makes working difficult and interferes with everyday living as well as social functions.
Researchers have identified the gene that causes the sleep disorder known as familial advanced sleep phase syndrome or FASPS.
Advanced Sleep Phase syndrome causes people to suffer an overwhelming desire to sleep early in the evening. They have to go to bed or fall asleep where they're sitting (or, in severe cases, standing.) Then they're wide awake and raring to go at four in the morning or earlier. The word "familial" indicates that the syndrome often runs in families occurring more often than chance alone would dictate. Hence, the discovery that FASPS is in the genes.
As research continues, it is a distinct possibility that scientists may find other sleep disorders related to genes. In a recent study, co-author Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco explains that a lucky few people can get by just fine on six hours of sleep, and a genetic mutation might help explain why.
With this research available, it may be possible for scientists to develop safe ways to tinker with people's bodies so that they can sleep less and still feel fine.
Got a sleep problem? It might be all in your genes.
Published On: September 21, 2009