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Scientists at UC San Francisco discover gene that helps supercharge sleep

Would you like to be able to sleep just a few short hours each night, but still rise fully rested and revitalized to start the day? You may well be able to in the not-too-distant future, thanks to groundbreaking new work from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

The UC San Francisco scientists, whose previous work helped establish a genetic basis for sleep, have discovered a new gene that contributes to short sleep patterns of just 4-6 hours — but without any of the negative side-effects normally associated with too little sleep.

“We all know that good sleep is important for us to feel good the next day, and we spend a lot of time sleeping in our lives,” Ying-Hui Fu, professor of neurology and a member of UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences, told Digital Trends. “However, we have very little understanding on how our sleep is regulated, especially with regard to how many hours of sleep we really need.”

A decade ago, the research team discovered a genetic mutation responsible for making people sleep fewer hours per day and yet still function effectively. However, this mutation was sufficiently rare that it could not be used to explain all natural short sleepers. The researchers have now bolstered this discovery by finding a second related mutation. This second gene adds to geneticists’ understanding of how sleep efficiency is regulated. A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Neuron.

“Understanding that sleep is controlled by genes as a concept is very important,” Fu said. “People used to think that we can just manipulate our sleep and not have a consequence. But now we know that if your genes wire you to be morning larks [or] night owls, or short sleepers [or] long sleepers, you need to respect your body and follow what your body needs to do.”

But as much as we’re all for understanding our natural cycles, what if we’re the kind of people doomed to forever be struggling against early morning starts, but trapped in a 9-5 world we never created? Help may (eventually) be at hand, courtesy of those people fortunate enough to be blessed with superior genetics.

“Genetic editing is a hot topic right now, but it’s hard to predict when this will be possible,” Fu said. “More realistically will be some therapeutic drugs to mimic the effects of mutation. This could be helping people with sleep problems and regular people just wanting to enhance sleep efficiency.”

Or, you know, maybe we could just quit our job and move to a relaxing desert island with no alarm clocks.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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