Night shifts

Circadian biology for public health

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The award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has piqued public and scientific interest in circadian research (see Nature 550, 18; 2017). The time has come to translate our understanding of the circadian molecular clock into public-health benefits.

Circadian biology is the archetypal gene–environment interaction. We know that certain transcription factors interact with each other in a loop to produce the biological outputs that make up 24-hour patterns. And we know that light and time-zone travel affect the timing of this system to the detriment of human health. But even after 30 years of circadian biology, we still don't know how best to use this information to protect the public's health.

Some activities that disrupt circadian clocks are voluntary. Others can be the result of limited opportunity — as in the case of night-shift workers. Scientists and the public need to engage in dialogue to develop precautionary and mitigation strategies that are feasible and acceptable to all.

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Correspondence to Charleen Adams.

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Adams, C., Blacker, E. & Burke, W. Circadian biology for public health. Nature 551, 33 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/551033b

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