Life Science Blog

The Thatcher gene

The key to being an early bird

December 6, 2011

A paper just out in the November issue of Molecular Psychiatry identifies a gene that appears to be associated with reduced sleep. Some are calling it the “Thatcher Gene” after Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister from 1979 to 1990 who was apparently quite a light sleeper. Researchers at Ludwig-Maximillians University in Germany used sleep surveys and gene profiles of more than 4,000 Europeans from seven nations to nail down the gene, known as ABCC9.

This story is close to my heart not only because I’m interested in genetics, but also because this very morning I was fifteen minutes late for class due to oversleeping. (Sad face.)

News outlets covering the story have focused on the perceived advantage of sleeping less, or having an “internal alarm clock” (which seems like a different issue to me). I’m pretty sure the Daily Mail was the first to call ABCC9 the “Thatcher Gene.” Then, ABC news elaborated on the idea with Napoleon Bonaparte and Leonardo da Vinci connections. The idea that these historical figures/geniuses were successful due to sleeping less, and to conjecture even further by guessing they had this particular variant of ABCC9, is a hoot, for sure, and fun to read about – even if it may be completely wrong.

Small point: does sleeping less mean you have an internal alarm clock? This study didn’t ask respondents what time they woke up in the morning, or what kind of waking-up-mechanism they used. In fruit flies, fiddling with the ABCC9 gene did disrupt their sleep patterns, making the flies sleepless for the first three hours of the night. This doesn’t automatically translate to “this gene is an alarm clock in your brain” yet, but with more research it may.

Sleeping less has been labeled a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Getting either more or less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night are correlated with a slightly increased risk of “coronary events,” such as heart attack or stroke.

But does sleeping less really mean you will be more successful, even at the expense of your health? Do more successful people sleep less? To the contrary, the National Institutes of Health say we are designed to sleep more than eight hours per night. Further confusing matters, other sleep researchers have disputed the findings of that federal study. So even as we find associations between genetic variations and sleep habits, it seems obvious that the “Thatcher Gene” isn’t the end of the story.

There’s a lot of interesting research that actually suggests late risers are smarter than early risers. So maybe I’m not doing so bad, ahem.


About the Author

Kathryn Doyle

Kathryn Doyle recently graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, having majored in biology and English. Undergraduate studies led her to a small field research station in Mexico for a few months in pursuit of whales and to a summer at Universita Ca’Foscari in Venice, Italy, in the more relaxing pursuit of travel writing. She is happy to let life take her back to New York, her home state, and to SHERP. @doyleschmoyle



Jan Vones says:

One might as well attribute Thatcher’s success to the genes contributing in later life to her suffering Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows the etiology? I can’t think of anything more silly than describing her pathological and involuntary lack of sleep as if it were a moral virtue.

Lee says:

I don’t think the author suggested it was a moral virtue, but rather an attribute that might contibute to a successful career. I’m certain that someone who can think clearly, even after minimal sleep, would have some advantages over their peers.

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