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Honorary doctorate for circadian biologist Michael Menaker

University of Groningen honours grand old man of the biological clock
11 February 2009

During the celebrations of its 395th birthday this year, the University of Groningen will award an honorary doctorate to the American circadian biologist professor Michael Menaker on 5 June 2009. In this way the University is honouring the grand old man of research on the biological clock, the timer in our bodies that governs day/night rhythms. Menaker was the first to demonstrate that the biological clock is located in a brain nucleus. According to the proposal, ‘for a generation of researchers into the biological clock, including those in Groningen, Michael Menaker is the giant on whose shoulders they stand’.

Prof. Michael Menaker, professor of Biology at the University of Virginia, gained his PhD in 1959 from Princeton University. In 1969 he discovered that the biological clock in birds is located in the pineal gland. In 1989 he published research that definitively demonstrated that the clock in mammals is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus. When defining this function, he described this brain nucleus as ‘the ringmaster of the circadian circus’.

Both cases involved transplantation experiments with brain tissue, whereby Menaker proved that when the tissue was transferred to a different animal,  its function was  maintained. ‘The elegance and the scientific riger  of these experiments are unequalled’, says the Groningen behavioural biologist Prof. Serge Daan about this pioneering scientific work. ‘They are probably the first, if not the only, transplants of neuronal tissue that lead to functional recovery’.

In addition to proving that the biological clock is something concrete located in organ tissue, Menaker in his scientific career has also investigated how the clock synchronizes with the rhythm of day and night in the environment. He discovered early on that  in birds this occurs without the help of the eyes. More recently, his team has demonstrated that a mammalian eye not only has rods and cones but also light-sensitive cells that are not used for seeing but to synchronize the biological clock with the environment. Other organs, such as the lungs and the liver, also turn out to contain their own clock cells. Menaker’s many students have in the meantime continued to delve deeply into the molecular-genetic mechanism behind the biological clock. The most important research centre of the thriving field that he defined is now the Center for Biological Timing at the University of Virginia.

Menaker has built up an impressive oeuvre, which has resulted in many scientific prizes and medals awarded to him, as well as glowing references. For example, Harvard Medical School when awarding him the 2007 Farrell Prize not only referred to him as the ‘trailblazer in the circadian biology’, ‘prescient illuminator of how Light and Dark come to govern living clocks’ and ‘architect of landmark experiments’, but above all as a ‘scientific father, mentor and friend to a generation of circadian researchers’.

Last modified:04 January 2018 3.16 p.m.

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