Steve A. Kay

Courtesy of Scripps Research InstituteIf he weren't so young, the moniker "Father Time" might fit geneticist Steve A. Kay quite well. At 44, the man whose lab determined how flowers know when to bloom is admittedly obsessed with clocks, whether they go off in Arabidopsis, Drosophila, or the mouse. The fascination began after he helped discover the cab gene in the early 1980s as a postdoc at Rockefeller University. "These circadian rhythms were doing a lot to me," he says in his characteristic, t

Christine Bahls
Feb 15, 2004
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Courtesy of Scripps Research Institute

If he weren't so young, the moniker "Father Time" might fit geneticist Steve A. Kay quite well. At 44, the man whose lab determined how flowers know when to bloom is admittedly obsessed with clocks, whether they go off in Arabidopsis, Drosophila, or the mouse. The fascination began after he helped discover the cab gene in the early 1980s as a postdoc at Rockefeller University. "These circadian rhythms were doing a lot to me," he says in his characteristic, tongue-in-cheek way. "They were controlling how aware I was, and why I needed to drink so heavily at meetings for the awake-sleep cycle."

Raised on the Isle of Jersey, he spent his childhood "looking at weird crap washing up on the beach, [like] survival boxes from British Navy ships." Now a principal investigator at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., Kay got a genuine...

Are you a morning or night person?

I am a morning person, married to a night person [neurobiologist Shelley Halpain]. It's just hilarious – we have watched so many movies that I haven't seen the end of.

What nonscientific activities do you enjoy?

I just love to go tuna fishing off San Diego ... it's the hidden Jacques Cousteau inside of me.

What is your favorite model organism?

I think at the end of the day, my favorite is Arabidopsis. Plant biology is at the roots of my scientific training. Arabidopsis is a real latecomer to the MO club. For a long time, plant biology was spread across various species. It wasn't until the 1980s that people got behind this little plant.

Tell us about the discovery at Rockefeller

We had become aware of a lot of the ways plant growth is regulated by transcription in light conditions. We were trying to see how light information transduced to the genome. I've always been an early morning person, [so] I was studying genes [in the morning] ..., but I was working with a Hungarian colleague who was not a morning person; he said he couldn't reproduce the data. I had just read some circadian work from B.M. Sweeney, and I wondered if [our data reproduction issue was] this cycling thing; [whether] there is this gene that switched on in the morning, off in the afternoon .... We literally stumbled into it.

Then what?

The University of Virginia's Center for Biological Timing had created an environment [designed for] risky research. I wanted to make plants and flies glow on and off to make mutant screens. ... We understood about gene expression; the next thing was, how were they built? There was great stuff coming out of flies; we needed a similar approach in Arabidopsis. Jeff Hall (now at Brandeis University) and I discovered a bunch of fun things using real-time imaging of gene expression, [and we found] there were clocks all over the body. That was a paradigm shift – that clocks were not just in the brain.

What do you ultimately want to discover?

I want to keep searching the clock genes to see if there is a common signature.

What music is in your CD player right now?

I like people like Moby, electronic music. I'm a huge John Coltrane fan.

What is stress for you?

Balancing family and professional life. There is so much I want to do. I can remember my grandfather taking me on a boat when I was 5 years old. My father was really good at doing stuff with me. I want to make sure my daughter just doesn't know about me by reading [science journals].

Are chronobiologists in sync?

I think it would be awful if we were! The origin of the clock is very controversial. There are lots of different [viewpoints] – reductionist, evolution side – and a lot of arguments regarding whether they function independently. It would be terrible if we agreed too much. I don't know what we'd do at meetings.

What are your favorite papers?

Back-to-back Science papers12 in 1995 on plants; a 1997 Science paper3 denoting that clocks are found all over the body in flies; and a 2002 Nature paper4 on how a 24-hour-clock is used for seasonal control in plants.

Share your thoughts about cancer chronotherapy

I think in 2002–2003, there were several papers that lent great credence to [it]. The clock controls vital aspects of cell division. If a tumor is dividing, there's a chance to inhibit cell division when the body is less susceptible to that drug. It's not an issue of efficacy, but of safety profiling, and that's really exciting.

Christine Bahls can be reached at cbahls@the-scientist.com.

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