Raised in and around Miami, Florida, Michael W. Young became fascinated by biological clocks—internal mechanisms that control the timing of activities in living organisms—around the age of 12 after seeing an exotic plant with flowers that opened only at night (and closed during the day) and then reading a book on evolution, which included a section on how birds and insects use biological clocks to navigate.
Young was introduced to the Drosophila genome at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his undergraduate degree in biology (1971) and his doctorate in genetics (1975). During a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry at the Stanford School of Medicine he began to study molecular genetics, specifically transposable elements (segments of DNA that can move from one place to another in a cell's genome). In 1978, he received an Andre and Bella Meyer Foundation fellowship and was appointed assistant professor at Rockefeller University, where he remains today. He is currently the university’s Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor and vice president for academic affairs.
Young’s three-decades-long research into the molecular biology and genetics of biological rhythms has played a pivotal role in establishing the complex and fascinating relationship between genes and behavior. Research from his lab has led to the discovery of many of the small group of genes and proteins that regulate circadian clocks in Drosophila.
When Young began investigating the circadian rhythms in the fruit fly, he had no idea where it would take him. “So many times in biology the solutions are much cleaner than you imagined at the outset,” he says. “The simplicity and robustness of this mechanism was unexpected.”
Young has received many honors for his discoveries in modern molecular genetics, including the Pittendrigh/Aschoff Award from the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms in 2006. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2007.
Young continues to study the circadian rhythms of gene expression systems in Drosophila, but an added focus has become the study of molecular changes in circadian clocks that lead to human sleep disorders.