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1.  Coupling governs entrainment range of circadian clocks 
Circadian clock oscillator properties that are crucial for synchronization with the environment (entrainment) are studied in experiment and theory.The ratio between stimulus (zeitgeber) strength and oscillator amplitude, and the rigidity of the oscillatory system (relaxation rate upon perturbation) determine entrainment properties. Coupling among oscillators affects both qualities resulting in increased amplitude and rigidity.Uncoupled lung clocks entrain to extreme zeitgeber cycles, whereas the coupled oscillator system in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) does not; however, when coupling in the SCN is inhibited, larger ranges of entrainment can be achieved.
Daily rhythms in physiology, metabolism and behavior are controlled by an endogenous circadian timing system, which has evolved to synchronize an organism to periodically recurring environmental conditions, such as light–dark or temperature cycles. In mammals, the circadian system relies on cell-autonomous oscillators residing in almost every cell of the body. Cells of the SCN in the anterior hypothalamus are able to generate precise, long-lasting self-sustained circadian oscillations, which drive most rhythmic behavioral and physiological outputs, and which are believed to originate from the fact that the SCN tissue consists of tightly coupled cells (Aton and Herzog, 2005). In contrast, peripheral oscillators, such as lung tissue, exhibit seemingly damped and usually less precise oscillations, which are thought to be brought about by the lack of intercellular coupling.
Precise synchronization of these rhythms within the organism, but also with the environment (so-called entrainment), is an essential part of circadian organization. Entrainment is one of the cornerstones of circadian biology (Roenneberg et al, 2003). In evolution, the phase of a rhythmic variable is selective rather than its endogenous period. Thus, the synchronization of endogenous rhythms to zeitgeber cycles of the environment (resulting in a specific phase of entrainment) is fundamental for the adaptive value of circadian clocks. In this study, we systematically investigated the properties of circadian oscillators that are essential for entrainment behavior and describe coupling as a primary determinant.
As an experimental starting point of this study, we found that the circadian oscillators of lung tissue have a larger range of entrainment than SCN tissue—they readily entrained to extreme experimental temperature cycle of 20 or 28 h, whereas SCN tissue did not (Figure 4). For this purpose, we cultured SCN and lung slices derived from mice that express luciferase as fusion protein together with the clock protein PERIOD2 (Yoo et al, 2004). The detection of luciferase-driven bioluminescence allowed us to follow molecular clock gene activity in real-time over the course of several days.
In theoretical analyses, we show that both the ratio of amplitude and zeitgeber strength and, importantly, inter-oscillator coupling are major determinants for entrainment. The reason for coupling being critical is twofold: (i) Coupling makes an oscillatory system more rigid, i.e., it relaxes faster in response to a perturbation, and (ii) coupling increases the amplitude of the oscillatory system. Both of these consequences of coupling lead to a smaller entrainment range, because zeitgeber stimuli affect the oscillatory system less if the relaxation is fast and the amplitude is high (Figure 1). From these theoretical considerations, we conclude that the lung clock probably constitutes a weak oscillatory system, likely because a lack in coupling leads to a slow amplitude relaxation. (Circadian amplitude is not particularly low in lung (Figure 4).) In contrast, the SCN constitutes a rigid oscillator, whereby coupling and its described consequences probably are the primary causes for this rigidity. We then tested these theoretical predictions by experimentally perturbing coupling in the SCN (with MDL and TTX; O'Neill et al, 2008; Yamaguchi et al, 2003) and find that, indeed, reducing the coupling weakens the circadian oscillatory system in the SCN, which results in an enlargement of the entrainment range (Figure 6).
Why is the SCN designed to be a stronger circadian oscillator than peripheral organs? We speculate that the position of the SCN—as the tissue that conveys environmental timing information (i.e., light) to the rest of the body—makes it necessary to create a circadian clock that is robust against noisy environmental stimuli. The SCN oscillator needs to be robust enough to be protected from environmental noise, but flexible enough to fulfill its function as an entrainable clock even in extreme photoperiods (i.e., seasons). By the same token, peripheral clocks are more protected from the environmental zeitgebers due to intrinsic homeostatic mechanisms. Thus, they do not necessarily need to develop a strong oscillatory system (e.g., by strengthening the coupling), rather they need to stay flexible enough to respond to direct or indirect signals from the SCN, such as hormonal, neural, temperature or metabolic signals. Such a design ensures that only robust and persistent environmental signals trigger an SCN resetting response, while SCN signals can relatively easily be conveyed to the rest of the body. Thus, the robustness in the SCN clock likely serves as a filter for environmental noise.
In summary, using a combination of simulation studies, analytical calculations and experiments, we uncovered critical features for entrainment, such as zeitgeber-to-amplitude ratio and amplitude relaxation rate. Coupling is a primary factor that governs these features explaining important differences in the design of SCN and peripheral oscillators that ensure a robust, but also flexible circadian system.
Circadian clocks are endogenous oscillators driving daily rhythms in physiology and behavior. Synchronization of these timers to environmental light–dark cycles (‘entrainment') is crucial for an organism's fitness. Little is known about which oscillator qualities determine entrainment, i.e., entrainment range, phase and amplitude. In a systematic theoretical and experimental study, we uncovered these qualities for circadian oscillators in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN—the master clock in mammals) and the lung (a peripheral clock): (i) the ratio between stimulus (zeitgeber) strength and oscillator amplitude and (ii) the rigidity of the oscillatory system (relaxation rate upon perturbation) determine entrainment properties. Coupling among oscillators affects both qualities resulting in increased amplitude and rigidity. These principles explain our experimental findings that lung clocks entrain to extreme zeitgeber cycles, whereas SCN clocks do not. We confirmed our theoretical predictions by showing that pharmacological inhibition of coupling in the SCN leads to larger ranges of entrainment. These differences between master and the peripheral clocks suggest that coupling-induced rigidity in the SCN filters environmental noise to create a robust circadian system.
PMCID: PMC3010105  PMID: 21119632
circadian clock; coupling; entrainment; mathematical modeling; oscillator
2.  System-Driven and Oscillator-Dependent Circadian Transcription in Mice with a Conditionally Active Liver Clock  
PLoS Biology  2007;5(2):e34.
The mammalian circadian timing system consists of a master pacemaker in neurons of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and clocks of a similar molecular makeup in most peripheral body cells. Peripheral oscillators are self-sustained and cell autonomous, but they have to be synchronized by the SCN to ensure phase coherence within the organism. In principle, the rhythmic expression of genes in peripheral organs could thus be driven not only by local oscillators, but also by circadian systemic signals. To discriminate between these mechanisms, we engineered a mouse strain with a conditionally active liver clock, in which REV-ERBα represses the transcription of the essential core clock gene Bmal1 in a doxycycline-dependent manner. We examined circadian liver gene expression genome-wide in mice in which hepatocyte oscillators were either running or arrested, and found that the rhythmic transcription of most genes depended on functional hepatocyte clocks. However, we discovered 31 genes, including the core clock gene mPer2, whose expression oscillated robustly irrespective of whether the liver clock was running or not. By contrast, in liver explants cultured in vitro, circadian cycles of mPer2::luciferase bioluminescence could only be observed when hepatocyte oscillators were operational. Hence, the circadian cycles observed in the liver of intact animals without functional hepatocyte oscillators were likely generated by systemic signals. The finding that rhythmic mPer2 expression can be driven by both systemic cues and local oscillators suggests a plausible mechanism for the phase entrainment of subsidiary clocks in peripheral organs.
Author Summary
In contrast to previously held belief, molecular circadian oscillators are not restricted to specialized pacemaker tissues, such as the brain's suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), but exist in virtually all body cells. Although the circadian clocks operative in peripheral cell types are as robust as those residing in SCN neurons, they quickly become desynchronized in vitro due to variations in period length. Hence, in intact animals, the phase coherence between peripheral oscillators must be established by daily signals generated by the SCN master clock. Although the hierarchy between master and slave oscillators is now well established, the respective roles of these clocks in governing the circadian transcription program in a given organ have never been examined. In principle, the circadian expression of genes in a peripheral tissue could be driven either by cyclic systemic cues, by peripheral oscillators, or by both. In order to discriminate between genes regulated by local oscillators and systemic cues in liver, we generated mice in which hepatocyte clocks can be turned on and off at will. These studies suggest that 90% of the circadian transcription program in the liver is abolished or strongly attenuated when hepatocyte clocks are turned off, indicating that the expression of most circadian liver genes is orchestrated by local cellular clocks. The remaining 10% of cyclically expressed liver genes continue to be transcribed in a robustly circadian fashion in the absence of functional hepatocyte oscillators. These genes, which unexpectedly include the bona fide clock gene mPer2, must therefore be regulated by oscillating systemic signals, such as hormones, metabolites, or body temperature. Although temperature rhythms display only modest amplitudes, they appear to play a significant role in the phase entrainment of mPer2 transcription.
Research on mice engineered with an inducible liver clock enabled identification of some genes with expression controlled by the local clock, and other genes (includingmPer2) that maintained circadian oscillations thanks to cues from the SCN.
PMCID: PMC1783671  PMID: 17298173
3.  Lhx1 maintains synchrony among circadian oscillator neurons of the SCN 
eLife  2014;3:e03357.
The robustness and limited plasticity of the master circadian clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is attributed to strong intercellular communication among its constituent neurons. However, factors that specify this characteristic feature of the SCN are unknown. Here, we identified Lhx1 as a regulator of SCN coupling. A phase-shifting light pulse causes acute reduction in Lhx1 expression and of its target genes that participate in SCN coupling. Mice lacking Lhx1 in the SCN have intact circadian oscillators, but reduced levels of coupling factors. Consequently, the mice rapidly phase shift under a jet lag paradigm and their behavior rhythms gradually deteriorate under constant condition. Ex vivo recordings of the SCN from these mice showed rapid desynchronization of unit oscillators. Therefore, by regulating expression of genes mediating intercellular communication, Lhx1 imparts synchrony among SCN neurons and ensures consolidated rhythms of activity and rest that is resistant to photic noise.
eLife digest
As anyone who has experienced jet lag can testify, our sleeping pattern is normally synchronized with the local day–night cycle. Nevertheless, if a person is made to live in constant darkness as part of an experiment, they still continue to experience daily changes in their alertness levels. In most individuals, this internal ‘circadian rhythm’ repeats with a period of just over 24 hr, and exposure to light brings it into line with the 24-hr clock.
The internal circadian rhythm is generated by a structure deep within the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is essentially the ‘master clock’ of the brain. However, each cell within the SCN also contains its own clock, and can generate rhythmic activity independently of its neighbors. Cross-talk between these cells results in the production of a single circadian rhythm.
Now, Hatori et al. have identified the master regulator that controls this cross-talk. When mice living in 24-hr darkness were exposed to an hour of light in the early evening, they showed changes in the levels of proteins associated with many SCN genes. But one gene in particular, known as Lhx1, stood out because it was strongly suppressed by light.
Mice with a complete absence of Lhx1 die in the womb. However, mice that lose Lhx1 during embryonic development survive, although they struggle to maintain circadian rhythms when kept in complete darkness. This is not because their SCN cells fail to generate circadian rhythms. Instead, it is because the loss of Lhx1—a transcription factor that controls the expression of many other genes—means that the SCN cells do not produce the proteins they need to synchronize their outputs.
As well as identifying a key gene involved in the generation and maintenance of circadian rhythms, Hatori et al. have underlined the importance of cell-to-cell communication in these processes. These insights may ultimately have therapeutic relevance for individuals with sleep disturbances caused by jet lag, shift work or certain sleep disorders.
PMCID: PMC4137275  PMID: 25035422
circadian rhythm; suprachiasmatic nucleus; Lhx1; VIP; Ror-alpha; mouse
4.  High-Throughput Chemical Screen Identifies a Novel Potent Modulator of Cellular Circadian Rhythms and Reveals CKIα as a Clock Regulatory Kinase 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(12):e1000559.
A novel compound “longdaysin” was found to dramatically slow down the speed of the circadian clock through simultaneous inhibition of protein kinases CKIδ, CKIα, and ERK2.
The circadian clock underlies daily rhythms of diverse physiological processes, and alterations in clock function have been linked to numerous pathologies. To apply chemical biology methods to modulate and dissect the clock mechanism with new chemical probes, we performed a circadian screen of ∼120,000 uncharacterized compounds on human cells containing a circadian reporter. The analysis identified a small molecule that potently lengthens the circadian period in a dose-dependent manner. Subsequent analysis showed that the compound also lengthened the period in a variety of cells from different tissues including the mouse suprachiasmatic nucleus, the central clock controlling behavioral rhythms. Based on the prominent period lengthening effect, we named the compound longdaysin. Longdaysin was amenable for chemical modification to perform affinity chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry analysis to identify target proteins. Combined with siRNA-mediated gene knockdown, we identified the protein kinases CKIδ, CKIα, and ERK2 as targets of longdaysin responsible for the observed effect on circadian period. Although individual knockdown of CKIδ, CKIα, and ERK2 had small period effects, their combinatorial knockdown dramatically lengthened the period similar to longdaysin treatment. We characterized the role of CKIα in the clock mechanism and found that CKIα-mediated phosphorylation stimulated degradation of a clock protein PER1, similar to the function of CKIδ. Longdaysin treatment inhibited PER1 degradation, providing insight into the mechanism of longdaysin-dependent period lengthening. Using larval zebrafish, we further demonstrated that longdaysin drastically lengthened circadian period in vivo. Taken together, the chemical biology approach not only revealed CKIα as a clock regulatory kinase but also identified a multiple kinase network conferring robustness to the clock. Longdaysin provides novel possibilities in manipulating clock function due to its ability to simultaneously inhibit several key components of this conserved network across species.
Author Summary
Most organisms show daily rhythms in physiology, behavior, and metabolism, which may be advantageous because they anticipate environmental changes thus optimize energy metabolism. These rhythms are controlled by the circadian clock, which produces cyclic expression of thousands of output genes. More than a dozen components of the circadian clock are called clock genes, and the proteins they encode form a transcription factor network that generates rhythmic gene expression. In this study, we set out to control the function of the circadian clock and to identify new clock proteins by means of chemical tools. We tested the effects on the clock in human cells of around 120,000 uncharacterized compounds. Here we describe identification of a novel compound “longdaysin” that markedly slows the circadian clock both in cultured mammalian cells and in living zebrafish. By using longdaysin as a chemical probe, we found new proteins that modulate clock function. Because defects of clock function have been linked to numerous diseases, longdaysin may form the basis for therapeutic strategies directed towards circadian rhythm-related disorders, shift-work fatigue, and jet lag.
PMCID: PMC3001897  PMID: 21179498
5.  NPAS2 Compensates for Loss of CLOCK in Peripheral Circadian Oscillators 
PLoS Genetics  2016;12(2):e1005882.
Heterodimers of CLOCK and BMAL1 are the major transcriptional activators of the mammalian circadian clock. Because the paralog NPAS2 can substitute for CLOCK in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the master circadian pacemaker, CLOCK-deficient mice maintain circadian rhythms in behavior and in tissues in vivo. However, when isolated from the SCN, CLOCK-deficient peripheral tissues are reportedly arrhythmic, suggesting a fundamental difference in circadian clock function between SCN and peripheral tissues. Surprisingly, however, using luminometry and single-cell bioluminescence imaging of PER2 expression, we now find that CLOCK-deficient dispersed SCN neurons and peripheral cells exhibit similarly stable, autonomous circadian rhythms in vitro. In CLOCK-deficient fibroblasts, knockdown of Npas2 leads to arrhythmicity, suggesting that NPAS2 can compensate for loss of CLOCK in peripheral cells as well as in SCN. Our data overturn the notion of an SCN-specific role for NPAS2 in the molecular circadian clock, and instead indicate that, at the cellular level, the core loops of SCN neuron and peripheral cell circadian clocks are fundamentally similar.
Author Summary
In mammals, circadian clocks are based on a core transcriptional–translational feedback loop. BMAL1 and CLOCK activate the transcription of Per1-3 and Cry1/2. PER and CRY proteins inhibit BMAL1/CLOCK, and thus their own transcription. In Clock-/- mice, NPAS2 can substitute for CLOCK in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the major circadian pacemaker. However, peripheral tissues of Clock-/- mice were reported to lack circadian rhythms. Since then, the protein CLOCK has been deemed essential for circadian rhythms in peripheral tissues. However, here we show that Clock-/- peripheral cells and tissues exhibit stable, autonomous circadian rhythms. Furthermore, in Clock-/- fibroblasts, knockdown of Npas2 leads to arrhythmicity, suggesting that NPAS2 can compensate for the loss of CLOCK in peripheral cells as well as in SCN. Our data overturn the notion of an SCN-specific role for NPAS2, and instead indicate that the core loops of SCN neuron and peripheral cell circadian clocks are fundamentally similar. This finding redefines a basic principle of molecular circadian clock regulation in peripheral organs which are essential for many metabolic processes. Disturbances of these rhythms lead to disorders like diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Thus, understanding the molecular basis of peripheral circadian oscillators is essential to develop treatments against clock-related disorders.
PMCID: PMC4760943  PMID: 26895328
6.  Circadian rhythms in the pineal organ persist in zebrafish larvae that lack ventral brain 
BMC Neuroscience  2011;12:7.
The mammalian suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the ventral hypothalamus, is a major regulator of circadian rhythms in mammals and birds. However, the role of the SCN in lower vertebrates remains poorly understood. Zebrafish cyclops (cyc) mutants lack ventral brain, including the region that gives rise to the SCN. We have used cyc embryos to define the function of the zebrafish SCN in regulating circadian rhythms in the developing pineal organ. The pineal organ is the major source of the circadian hormone melatonin, which regulates rhythms such as daily rest/activity cycles. Mammalian pineal rhythms are controlled almost exclusively by the SCN. In zebrafish and many other lower vertebrates, the pineal has an endogenous clock that is responsible in part for cyclic melatonin biosynthesis and gene expression.
We find that pineal rhythms are present in cyc mutants despite the absence of an SCN. The arginine vasopressin-like protein (Avpl, formerly called Vasotocin) is a peptide hormone expressed in and around the SCN. We find avpl mRNA is absent in cyc mutants, supporting previous work suggesting the SCN is missing. In contrast, expression of the putative circadian clock genes, cryptochrome 1b (cry1b) and cryptochrome 3 (cry3), in the brain of the developing fish is unaltered. Expression of two pineal rhythmic genes, exo-rhodopsin (exorh) and serotonin-N-acetyltransferase (aanat2), involved in photoreception and melatonin synthesis, respectively, is also similar between cyc embryos and their wildtype (WT) siblings. The timing of the peaks and troughs of expression are the same, although the amplitude of expression is slightly decreased in the mutants. Cyclic gene expression persists for two days in cyc embryos transferred to constant light or constant dark, suggesting a circadian clock is driving the rhythms. However, the amplitude of rhythms in cyc mutants kept in constant conditions decreased more quickly than in their WT siblings.
Our data suggests that circadian rhythms can be initiated and maintained in the absence of SCN and other tissues in the ventral brain. However, the SCN may have a role in regulating the amplitude of rhythms when environmental cues are absent. This provides some of the first evidence that the SCN of teleosts is not essential for establishing circadian rhythms during development. Several SCN-independent circadian rhythms have also been found in mammalian species. Thus, zebrafish may serve as a model system for understanding how vertebrate embryos coordinate rhythms that are controlled by different circadian clocks.
PMCID: PMC3031267  PMID: 21232144
7.  Quantitative analysis of regulatory flexibility under changing environmental conditions 
Day length changes with the seasons in temperate latitudes, affecting the many biological rhythms that entrain to the day/night cycle: we measure these effects on the expression of Arabidopsis clock genes, using RNA and reporter gene readouts, with a new method of phase analysis.Dusk sensitivity is proposed as a simple, natural and general mathematical measure to analyse and manipulate the changing phase of a clock output relative to the change in the day/night cycle.Dusk sensitivity shows how increasing the numbers of feedback loops in the Arabidopsis clock models allows more flexible regulation, consistent with a previously-proposed, general operating principle of biological networks.The Arabidopsis clock genes show flexibility of regulation that is characteristic of a three-loop clock model, validating aspects of the model and the operating principle, but some clock output genes show greater flexibility arising from direct light regulation.
The analysis of dynamic, non-linear regulation with the aid of mechanistic models is central to Systems Biology. This study compares the predictions of mechanistic, mathematical models of the circadian clock with molecular time-series data on rhythmic gene expression in the higher plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Analysis of the models helps us to understand (explain and predict) how the clock gene circuit balances regulation by external and endogenous factors to achieve particular behaviours. Such multi-factorial regulation is ubiquitous in, and characteristic of, living systems.
The Earth's rotation causes predictable changes in the environment, notably in the availability of sunlight for photosynthesis. Many biological processes are driven by the environmental input via sensory pathways, for example, from photoreceptors. Circadian clocks provide an alternative strategy. These endogenous, 24-h rhythms can drive biological processes that anticipate the regular environmental changes, rather than merely responding. Many rhythmic processes have both light and clock control. Indeed, the clock components themselves must balance internal timing with external inputs, because circadian clocks are reset daily through light regulation of one or more clock components. This process of entrainment is complicated by the change in day length. When the times of dawn and dusk move apart in summer, and closer together in winter, does the clock track dawn, track dusk or interpolate between them?
In plants, the clock controls leaf and petal movements, the opening and closing of stomatal pores, the discharge of floral fragrances, and many metabolic activities, especially those associated with photosynthesis. Centuries of physiological studies have shown that these rhythms can behave differently. Flowering in Ipomoea nil (Pharbitis nil, Japanese morning glory) is controlled by a rhythm that tracks the time of dusk, to give a classic example. We showed that two other rhythms associated with vegetative growth track dawn in this species (Figure 5A), so the clock system allows flexible regulation.
The relatively small number of components involved in the circadian clockwork makes it an ideal candidate for mathematical modelling. Molecular genetic studies in a variety of model eukaryotes have shown that the circadian rhythm is generated by a network of 6–20 genes. These genes form feedback loops generating a rhythm in mRNA production. A single negative feedback loop in which a gene encodes a protein that, after several hours, turns off transcription is capable of generating a circadian rhythm, in principle. A single light input can entrain the clock to ‘local time', synchronised with a light–dark cycle. However, real circadian clocks have proven to be more complicated than this, with multiple light inputs and interlocked feedback loops.
We have previously argued from mathematical analysis that multi-loop networks increase the flexibility of regulation (Rand et al, 2004) and have shown that appropriately deployed flexibility can confer functional robustness (Akman et al, 2010). Here we test whether that flexibility can be demonstrated in vivo, in the model plant, A. thaliana. The Arabidopsis clock mechanism comprises a feedback loop in which two partially redundant, myb transcription factors, LATE ELONGATED HYPOCOTYL (LHY) and CIRCADIAN CLOCK ASSOCIATED 1 (CCA1), repress the expression of their activator, TIMING OF CAB EXPRESSION 1 (TOC1). We previously modelled this single-loop circuit and showed that it was not capable of recreating important data (Locke et al, 2005a). An extended, two-loop model was developed to match observed behaviours, incorporating a hypothetical gene Y, for which the best identified candidate was the GIGANTEA gene (GI) (Locke et al, 2005b). Two further models incorporated the TOC1 homologues PSEUDO-RESPONSE REGULATOR (PRR) 9 and PRR7 (Locke et al, 2006; Zeilinger et al, 2006). In these circuits, a morning oscillator (LHY/CCA1–PRR9/7) is coupled to an evening oscillator (Y/GI–TOC1) via the original LHY/CCA1–TOC1 loop.
These clock models, like those for all other organisms, were developed using data from simple conditions of constant light, darkness or 12-h light–12-h dark cycles. We therefore tested how the clock genes in Arabidopsis responded to light–dark cycles with different photoperiods, from 3 h light to 18 h light per 24-h cycle (Edinburgh, 56° North latitude, has 17.5 h light in midsummer). The time-series assays of mRNA and in vivo reporter gene images showed a range of peak times for different genes, depending on the photoperiod (Figure 5C). A new data analysis method, mFourfit, was introduced to measure the peak times, in the Biological Rhythms Analysis Software Suite (BRASS v3.0). None of the genes showed the dusk-tracking behaviour characteristic of the Ipomoea flowering rhythm. The one-, two- and three-loop models were analysed to understand the observed patterns. A new mathematical measure, dusk sensitivity, was introduced to measure the change in timing of a model component versus a change in the time of dusk. The one- and two-loop models tracked dawn and dusk, respectively, under all conditions. Only the three-loop model (Figure 5B) had the flexibility required to match the photoperiod-dependent changes that we found in vivo, and in particular the unexpected, V-shaped pattern in the peak time of TOC1 expression. This pattern of regulation depends on the structure and light inputs to the model's evening oscillator, so the in vivo data supported this aspect of the model. LHY and CCA1 gene expression under short photoperiods showed greater dusk sensitivity, in the interval 2–6 h before dawn, than the three-loop model predicted, so these data will help to constrain future models.
The approach described here could act as a template for experimental biologists seeking to understand biological regulation using dynamic, experimental perturbations and time-series data. Simulation of mathematical models (despite known imperfections) can provide contrasting hypotheses that guide understanding. The system's detailed behaviour is complex, so a natural and general measure such as dusk sensitivity is helpful to focus on one property of the system. We used the measure to compare models, and to predict how this property could be manipulated. To enable additional analysis of this system, we provide the time-series data and experimental metadata online.
The circadian clock controls 24-h rhythms in many biological processes, allowing appropriate timing of biological rhythms relative to dawn and dusk. Known clock circuits include multiple, interlocked feedback loops. Theory suggested that multiple loops contribute the flexibility for molecular rhythms to track multiple phases of the external cycle. Clear dawn- and dusk-tracking rhythms illustrate the flexibility of timing in Ipomoea nil. Molecular clock components in Arabidopsis thaliana showed complex, photoperiod-dependent regulation, which was analysed by comparison with three contrasting models. A simple, quantitative measure, Dusk Sensitivity, was introduced to compare the behaviour of clock models with varying loop complexity. Evening-expressed clock genes showed photoperiod-dependent dusk sensitivity, as predicted by the three-loop model, whereas the one- and two-loop models tracked dawn and dusk, respectively. Output genes for starch degradation achieved dusk-tracking expression through light regulation, rather than a dusk-tracking rhythm. Model analysis predicted which biochemical processes could be manipulated to extend dusk tracking. Our results reveal how an operating principle of biological regulators applies specifically to the plant circadian clock.
PMCID: PMC3010117  PMID: 21045818
Arabidopsis thaliana; biological clocks; dynamical systems; gene regulatory networks; mathematical models; photoperiodism
8.  A Multiscale Model to Investigate Circadian Rhythmicity of Pacemaker Neurons in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(3):e1000706.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus is a multicellular system that drives daily rhythms in mammalian behavior and physiology. Although the gene regulatory network that produces daily oscillations within individual neurons is well characterized, less is known about the electrophysiology of the SCN cells and how firing rate correlates with circadian gene expression. We developed a firing rate code model to incorporate known electrophysiological properties of SCN pacemaker cells, including circadian dependent changes in membrane voltage and ion conductances. Calcium dynamics were included in the model as the putative link between electrical firing and gene expression. Individual ion currents exhibited oscillatory patterns matching experimental data both in current levels and phase relationships. VIP and GABA neurotransmitters, which encode synaptic signals across the SCN, were found to play critical roles in daily oscillations of membrane excitability and gene expression. Blocking various mechanisms of intracellular calcium accumulation by simulated pharmacological agents (nimodipine, IP3- and ryanodine-blockers) reproduced experimentally observed trends in firing rate dynamics and core-clock gene transcription. The intracellular calcium concentration was shown to regulate diverse circadian processes such as firing frequency, gene expression and system periodicity. The model predicted a direct relationship between firing frequency and gene expression amplitudes, demonstrated the importance of intracellular pathways for single cell behavior and provided a novel multiscale framework which captured characteristics of the SCN at both the electrophysiological and gene regulatory levels.
Author Summary
Circadian rhythms are ∼24 hour cycles in biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes observed in a diverse range of organisms including Cyanobacteria, Neurospora, Drosophila, mice and humans. In mammals, the dominant circadian pacemaker that drives daily rhythms is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. The SCN is composed of a highly connected network of ∼20,000 neurons. Within each individual SCN neuron core clock genes and proteins interact through intertwined regulatory loops to generate circadian oscillations on the molecular level. These neurons express daily rhythmicity in their firing frequency and other electrophysiological properties. The mechanisms by which the core clock produces synchronized rhythms in neural firing and gene expression are postulated to involve intracellular calcium, a second messenger that regulates many cellular processes. The interaction between the various clock components however remains unknown. In this paper, we present a single cell model that incorporates the circadian gene regulatory pathway, cellular electrophysiological properties, and cytosolic calcium dynamics. Our results suggest a possible system architecture that accounts for the robustness of the circadian clock at the single cell level. Our simulations predict a dual role for intracellular pathways instigated by intracellular calcium and VIP: maintaining the periodicity and amplitude of the core clock genes as well as the firing frequency oscillations.
PMCID: PMC2837390  PMID: 20300645
9.  Regulation of prokineticin 2 expression by light and the circadian clock 
BMC Neuroscience  2005;6:17.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) contains the master circadian clock that regulates daily rhythms of many physiological and behavioural processes in mammals. Previously we have shown that prokineticin 2 (PK2) is a clock-controlled gene that may function as a critical SCN output molecule responsible for circadian locomotor rhythms. As light is the principal zeitgeber that entrains the circadian oscillator, and PK2 expression is responsive to nocturnal light pulses, we further investigated the effects of light on the molecular rhythm of PK2 in the SCN. In particular, we examined how PK2 responds to shifts of light/dark cycles and changes in photoperiod. We also investigated which photoreceptors are responsible for the light-induced PK2 expression in the SCN. To determine whether light requires an intact functional circadian pacemaker to regulate PK2, we examined PK2 expression in cryptochrome1,2-deficient (Cry1-/-Cry2-/-) mice that lack functional circadian clock under normal light/dark cycles and constant darkness.
Upon abrupt shifts of the light/dark cycle, PK2 expression exhibits transients in response to phase advances but rapidly entrains to phase delays. Photoperiod studies indicate that PK2 responds differentially to changes in light period. Although the phase of PK2 expression expands as the light period increases, decreasing light period does not further condense the phase of PK2 expression. Genetic knockout studies revealed that functional melanopsin and rod-cone photoreceptive systems are required for the light-inducibility of PK2. In Cry1-/-Cry2-/- mice that lack a functional circadian clock, a low amplitude PK2 rhythm is detected under light/dark conditions, but not in constant darkness. This suggests that light can directly regulate PK2 expression in the SCN.
These data demonstrate that the molecular rhythm of PK2 in the SCN is regulated by both the circadian clock and light. PK2 is predominantly controlled by the endogenous circadian clock, while light plays a modulatory role. The Cry1-/-Cry2-/- mice studies reveal a light-driven PK2 rhythm, indicating that light can induce PK2 expression independent of the circadian oscillator. The light inducibility of PK2 suggests that in addition to its role in clock-driven rhythms of locomotor behaviour, PK2 may also participate in the photic entrainment of circadian locomotor rhythms.
PMCID: PMC555564  PMID: 15762991
10.  Circadian rhythm and its role in malignancy 
Circadian rhythms are daily oscillations of multiple biological processes directed by endogenous clocks. The circadian timing system comprises peripheral oscillators located in most tissues of the body and a central pacemaker located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. Circadian genes and the proteins produced by these genes constitute the molecular components of the circadian oscillator which form positive/negative feedback loops and generate circadian rhythms. The circadian regulation extends beyond clock genes to involve various clock-controlled genes (CCGs) including various cell cycle genes. Aberrant expression of circadian clock genes could have important consequences on the transactivation of downstream targets that control the cell cycle and on the ability of cells to undergo apoptosis. This may lead to genomic instability and accelerated cellular proliferation potentially promoting carcinogenesis. Different lines of evidence in mice and humans suggest that cancer may be a circadian-related disorder. The genetic or functional disruption of the molecular circadian clock has been found in various cancers including breast, ovarian, endometrial, prostate and hematological cancers. The acquisition of current data in circadian clock mechanism may help chronotherapy, which takes into consideration the biological time to improve treatments by devising new therapeutic approaches for treating circadian-related disorders, especially cancer.
PMCID: PMC2853504  PMID: 20353609
11.  Oxyntomodulin regulates resetting of the liver circadian clock by food 
eLife  null;4:e06253.
Circadian clocks coordinate 24-hr rhythms of behavior and physiology. In mammals, a master clock residing in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is reset by the light–dark cycle, while timed food intake is a potent synchronizer of peripheral clocks such as the liver. Alterations in food intake rhythms can uncouple peripheral clocks from the SCN, resulting in internal desynchrony, which promotes obesity and metabolic disorders. Pancreas-derived hormones such as insulin and glucagon have been implicated in signaling mealtime to peripheral clocks. In this study, we identify a novel, more direct pathway of food-driven liver clock resetting involving oxyntomodulin (OXM). In mice, food intake stimulates OXM secretion from the gut, which resets liver transcription rhythms via induction of the core clock genes Per1 and 2. Inhibition of OXM signaling blocks food-mediated resetting of hepatocyte clocks. These data reveal a direct link between gastric filling with food and circadian rhythm phasing in metabolic tissues.
eLife digest
Humans and other animals have adapted their behavior and their biology to the daily cycle of light and dark. Groups of genes are reliably switched on or off at different times of the day, and act as internal, or ‘circadian’, clocks that help these organisms to stay on a 24-hour cycle. External signals also synchronize the body's internal clocks. For example, sunlight helps synchronize the master clock in the brain, while mealtimes and other cues help other organs keep time.
These internal clocks are often disrupted in people who work overnight or on rotating shifts. It is believed that when these individuals wake up or go to sleep at odd times it confuses their circadian clocks, which can be harmful to their health. People who work these unusual hours are at an increased risk of developing cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other disorders that involve problems with metabolism.
Eating at odd hours may also throw off the circadian clocks in the digestive system. This may explain why metabolic problems have been linked to working odd hours. Landgraf, Tsang et al. hypothesized that if the hormones produced after eating are released when a person would normally be sleeping, this may desynchronize the circadian clock in organs like the liver. Screening mice and tissue samples from mice for hormones that perturb circadian rhythms showed that a hormone called oxyntomodulin, which is released from the gut after eating, activated important circadian clock genes in mouse livers. The increases in clock gene activation were comparable to those seen in the brain in response to exposure to light.
Landgraf, Tsang et al. revealed that the clock-resetting effects of oxyntomodulin were the greatest when animals were exposed to it by eating, or by injections of the hormone, at times when the animals would normally be fasting. The experiments also showed that blocking oxyntomodulin prevented eating at unusual times from interfering with the liver's circadian clocks. The findings may suggest a way to help protect people who work overnight from the harmful health effects linked to perturbed circadian clocks.
PMCID: PMC4426666  PMID: 25821984
circadian clock; liver; food resetting; clock genes; Per; mouse
12.  Misaligned feeding impairs memories 
eLife  null;4:e09460.
Robust sleep/wake rhythms are important for health and cognitive function. Unfortunately, many people are living in an environment where their circadian system is challenged by inappropriate meal- or work-times. Here we scheduled food access to the sleep time and examined the impact on learning and memory in mice. Under these conditions, we demonstrate that the molecular clock in the master pacemaker, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), is unaltered while the molecular clock in the hippocampus is synchronized by the timing of food availability. This chronic circadian misalignment causes reduced hippocampal long term potentiation and total CREB expression. Importantly this mis-timed feeding resulted in dramatic deficits in hippocampal-dependent learning and memory. Our findings suggest that the timing of meals have far-reaching effects on hippocampal physiology and learned behaviour.
eLife digest
Many processes within the body follow an approximately 24-hour cycle. In addition to patterns of sleep and wakefulness, such circadian rhythms help to regulate body temperature, blood pressure and hormone levels. They also affect when we feel hungry, when our muscles work most efficiently, and when we are mentally at our sharpest.
A region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) generates and maintains circadian rhythms, and thus acts as the body’s master clock. Daily exposure to light keeps the SCN synchronized with the 24-hour day/night cycle. However, most organs, from the heart to the pancreas, also possess their own clocks, which help to regulate organ-specific processes. These secondary clocks normally operate in synchrony with the SCN.
Exposure to light has long been known to influence circadian rhythms. However, more recent evidence suggests that the timing of meals may also affect circadian clocks, particularly those within the digestive system. Loh et al. therefore decided to investigate whether eating outside normal waking hours would also affect other key physiological processes, specifically the cognitive processes of learning and memory.
Mice normally consume most of their food after sunset. Loh et al. showed that rodents that were instead fed during the day performed less well on cognitive tests than other mice who received the same food at night. The daytime-fed mice showed changes in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which supports learning and memory. In particular, daytime feeding changed the timing of the secondary circadian clock within the hippocampus, although it had no effect on the master clock in the SCN. Loh et al. therefore suggest that the misalignment of these circadian clocks impairs cognition.
Further experiments are needed to determine whether a similar relationship exists between the timing of meals and cognitive performance in humans. If so, these findings will have implications for the many individuals whose mealtimes, for work or social reasons, are out of synchrony with their body clocks.
PMCID: PMC4729691  PMID: 26652002
learning and memory; hippocampus; circadian rhythms; CREB; Mouse
13.  Effect of Network Architecture on Synchronization and Entrainment Properties of the Circadian Oscillations in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(3):e1002419.
In mammals, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus constitutes the central circadian pacemaker. The SCN receives light signals from the retina and controls peripheral circadian clocks (located in the cortex, the pineal gland, the liver, the kidney, the heart, etc.). This hierarchical organization of the circadian system ensures the proper timing of physiological processes. In each SCN neuron, interconnected transcriptional and translational feedback loops enable the circadian expression of the clock genes. Although all the neurons have the same genotype, the oscillations of individual cells are highly heterogeneous in dispersed cell culture: many cells present damped oscillations and the period of the oscillations varies from cell to cell. In addition, the neurotransmitters that ensure the intercellular coupling, and thereby the synchronization of the cellular rhythms, differ between the two main regions of the SCN. In this work, a mathematical model that accounts for this heterogeneous organization of the SCN is presented and used to study the implication of the SCN network topology on synchronization and entrainment properties. The results show that oscillations with larger amplitude can be obtained with scale-free networks, in contrast to random and local connections. Networks with the small-world property such as the scale-free networks used in this work can adapt faster to a delay or advance in the light/dark cycle (jet lag). Interestingly a certain level of cellular heterogeneity is not detrimental to synchronization performances, but on the contrary helps resynchronization after jet lag. When coupling two networks with different topologies that mimic the two regions of the SCN, efficient filtering of pulse-like perturbations in the entrainment pattern is observed. These results suggest that the complex and heterogeneous architecture of the SCN decreases the sensitivity of the network to short entrainment perturbations while, at the same time, improving its adaptation abilities to long term changes.
Author Summary
In order to adapt to their cycling environment, virtually all living organisms have developed an internal timer, the circadian clock. In mammals, the circadian pacemaker is composed of about 20,000 neurons, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located in the hypothalamus. The SCN receives light signals from the retina and controls peripheral circadian clocks to ensure the proper timing of physiological processes. In each SCN neuron, a genetic regulatory network enables the circadian expression of the clock genes, but individual dynamics are highly heterogeneous in dispersed cell culture: many cells present damped oscillations and the period of the oscillations varies from cell to cell. In addition, the neurotransmitters that ensure the intercellular coupling, and thereby the synchronization of the cellular rhythms, differ between the two main regions of the SCN. We present here a mathematical model that accounts for this heterogeneous organization of the SCN and study the implication of the network topology on synchronization and entrainment properties. Our results show that cellular heterogeneity may help the resynchronization after jet lag and suggest that the complex architecture of the SCN decreases the sensitivity of the network to short entrainment perturbations while, at the same time, improving its adaptation abilities to long term changes.
PMCID: PMC3297560  PMID: 22423219
14.  Circadian influences on dopamine circuits of the brain: regulation of striatal rhythms of clock gene expression and implications for psychopathology and disease 
F1000Research  2016;5:F1000 Faculty Rev-2062.
Circadian clock proteins form an autoregulatory feedback loop that is central to the endogenous generation and transmission of daily rhythms in behavior and physiology. Increasingly, circadian rhythms in clock gene expression are being reported in diverse tissues and brain regions that lie outside of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the master circadian clock in mammals. For many of these extra-SCN rhythms, however, the region-specific implications are still emerging. In order to gain important insights into the potential behavioral, physiological, and psychological relevance of these daily oscillations, researchers have begun to focus on describing the neurochemical, hormonal, metabolic, and epigenetic contributions to the regulation of these rhythms. This review will highlight important sites and sources of circadian control within dopaminergic and striatal circuitries of the brain and will discuss potential implications for psychopathology and disease . For example, rhythms in clock gene expression in the dorsal striatum are sensitive to changes in dopamine release, which has potential implications for Parkinson’s disease and drug addiction. Rhythms in the ventral striatum and limbic forebrain are sensitive to psychological and physical stressors, which may have implications for major depressive disorder. Collectively, a rich circadian tapestry has emerged that forces us to expand traditional views and to reconsider the psychopathological, behavioral, and physiological importance of these region-specific rhythms in brain areas that are not immediately linked with the regulation of circadian rhythms.
PMCID: PMC5007753  PMID: 27635233
circadian clock; circadian rhythms; clock gene; circadian control
15.  BK Channels Regulate Spontaneous Action Potential Rhythmicity in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(12):e3884.
Circadian (∼24 hr) rhythms are generated by the central pacemaker localized to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. Although the basis for intrinsic rhythmicity is generally understood to rely on transcription factors encoded by “clock genes”, less is known about the daily regulation of SCN neuronal activity patterns that communicate a circadian time signal to downstream behaviors and physiological systems. Action potentials in the SCN are necessary for the circadian timing of behavior, and individual SCN neurons modulate their spontaneous firing rate (SFR) over the daily cycle, suggesting that the circadian patterning of neuronal activity is necessary for normal behavioral rhythm expression. The BK K+ channel plays an important role in suppressing spontaneous firing at night in SCN neurons. Deletion of the Kcnma1 gene, encoding the BK channel, causes degradation of circadian behavioral and physiological rhythms.
Methodology/Principal Findings
To test the hypothesis that loss of robust behavioral rhythmicity in Kcnma1−/− mice is due to the disruption of SFR rhythms in the SCN, we used multi-electrode arrays to record extracellular action potentials from acute wild-type (WT) and Kcnma1−/− slices. Patterns of activity in the SCN were tracked simultaneously for up to 3 days, and the phase, period, and synchronization of SFR rhythms were examined. Loss of BK channels increased arrhythmicity but also altered the amplitude and period of rhythmic activity. Unexpectedly, Kcnma1−/− SCNs showed increased variability in the timing of the daily SFR peak.
These results suggest that BK channels regulate multiple aspects of the circadian patterning of neuronal activity in the SCN. In addition, these data illustrate the characteristics of a disrupted SCN rhythm downstream of clock gene-mediated timekeeping and its relationship to behavioral rhythms.
PMCID: PMC2586654  PMID: 19060951
16.  Attenuated Circadian Rhythms in Mice Lacking the Prokineticin 2 Gene 
Circadian clocks drive daily rhythms in virtually all organisms. In mammals, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is recognized as the master clock that synchronizes central and peripheral oscillators to evoke circadian rhythms of diverse physiology and behavior. How the timing information is transmitted from the SCN clock to generate overt circadian rhythms is essentially unknown. Prokineticin 2 (PK2), a clock-controlled gene that encodes a secreted protein, has been indicated as a candidate SCN clock output signal that regulates circadian locomotor rhythm. Here we report the generation and analysis of PK2-null mice. The reduction of locomotor rhythms in PK2-null mice was apparent in both hybrid and inbred genetic backgrounds. PK2-null mice also displayed significantly reduced rhythmicity for a variety of other physiological and behavioral parameters, including sleep—wake cycle, body temperature, circulating glucocorticoid and glucose levels, as well as the expression of peripheral clock genes. In addition, PK2-null mice showed accelerated acquisition of food anticipatory activity during a daytime food restriction. We conclude that PK2, acting as a SCN output factor, is important for the maintenance of robust circadian rhythms.
PMCID: PMC2713041  PMID: 17093083
circadian rhythm; prokineticin 2; knock-out; suprachiasmatic nucleus; sleep; locomotor
17.  Tuning the Mammalian Circadian Clock: Robust Synergy of Two Loops 
PLoS Computational Biology  2011;7(12):e1002309.
The circadian clock is accountable for the regulation of internal rhythms in most living organisms. It allows the anticipation of environmental changes during the day and a better adaptation of physiological processes. In mammals the main clock is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and synchronizes secondary clocks throughout the body. Its molecular constituents form an intracellular network which dictates circadian time and regulates clock-controlled genes. These clock-controlled genes are involved in crucial biological processes including metabolism and cell cycle regulation. Its malfunction can lead to disruption of biological rhythms and cause severe damage to the organism. The detailed mechanisms that govern the circadian system are not yet completely understood. Mathematical models can be of great help to exploit the mechanism of the circadian circuitry. We built a mathematical model for the core clock system using available data on phases and amplitudes of clock components obtained from an extensive literature search. This model was used to answer complex questions for example: how does the degradation rate of Per affect the period of the system and what is the role of the ROR/Bmal/REV-ERB (RBR) loop? Our findings indicate that an increase in the RNA degradation rate of the clock gene Period (Per) can contribute to increase or decrease of the period - a consequence of a non-monotonic effect of Per transcript stability on the circadian period identified by our model. Furthermore, we provide theoretical evidence for a potential role of the RBR loop as an independent oscillator. We carried out overexpression experiments on members of the RBR loop which lead to loss of oscillations consistent with our predictions. These findings challenge the role of the RBR loop as a merely auxiliary loop and might change our view of the clock molecular circuitry and of the function of the nuclear receptors (REV-ERB and ROR) as a putative driving force of molecular oscillations.
Author Summary
Most organisms have evolved an internal clock which allows them to anticipate and react to the light/dark daily rhythm and is able to generate oscillation with a circa 24 hour rhythm. A molecular network involving feedback loops is responsible for the rhythm generation. A large number of clock-controlled genes pass on time messages and control several biological processes. In spite of its medical importance (role in cancer, sleep disorders, diabetes and others) the mechanism of action of the circadian clock and the role of its constituent's feedback loops remains partially unknown. Using a mathematical model, we were able to bring insight in open circadian biology questions. Firstly, increasing the mRNA degradation rate of Per can contribute to increase or decrease of the period which might explain contradictory experimental findings. Secondly, our data points to a more relevant role of the ROR/Bmal/REV-ERB loop. In particular, that this loop can be an oscillator on its own. We provide experimental evidence that overexpression of members of the ROR/Bmal/REV-ERB lead to loss of Bmal reporter mRNA oscillations. The fact that REV-ERB and ROR are nuclear receptors and therefore important regulators in many cellular processes might have important implications for molecular biology and medicine.
PMCID: PMC3240597  PMID: 22194677
18.  A highly tunable dopaminergic oscillator generates ultradian rhythms of behavioral arousal 
eLife  null;3:e05105.
Ultradian (∼4 hr) rhythms in locomotor activity that do not depend on the master circadian pacemaker in the suprachiasmatic nucleus have been observed across mammalian species, however, the underlying mechanisms driving these rhythms are unknown. We show that disruption of the dopamine transporter gene lengthens the period of ultradian locomotor rhythms in mice. Period lengthening also results from chemogenetic activation of midbrain dopamine neurons and psychostimulant treatment, while the antipsychotic haloperidol has the opposite effect. We further reveal that striatal dopamine levels fluctuate in synchrony with ultradian activity cycles and that dopaminergic tone strongly predicts ultradian period. Our data indicate that an arousal regulating, dopaminergic ultradian oscillator (DUO) operates in the mammalian brain, which normally cycles in harmony with the circadian clock, but can desynchronize when dopamine tone is elevated, thereby producing aberrant patterns of arousal which are strikingly similar to perturbed sleep-wake cycles comorbid with psychopathology.
eLife digest
The sleep-wake cycle of mammals is controlled by a ‘circadian clock’ within the brain, which is synchronized to the day–night cycle. However, other aspects of mammalian physiology including alertness and activity levels, as well as appetite and body temperature—fluctuate in cycles that repeat every few hours. These cycles are known as ultradian rhythms, and they may offer survival benefits by enabling potentially risky behaviors, such as foraging, to be coordinated between members of a group.
Despite their widespread nature and the fact that they appear to be conserved in evolution, virtually nothing is known about the molecular basis of ultradian rhythms. Blum et al. have now identified a second internal clock within the brain, which they name ‘the DUO’, and shown that this clock normally works in concert with the circadian clock to regulate daily patterns of activity and alertness.
Experiments in mice revealed that the DUO uses the brain chemical dopamine to generate bursts of activity roughly every four hours. Moreover, it continues to work when the circadian clock has been destroyed. Measurements of dopamine in freely moving mice showed that levels of the chemical fluctuate in synchrony with the animals' activity levels. Moreover, drugs that flood the brain with dopamine, such as methamphetamine, disrupt the 4-hour cycle by lengthening the period between bursts of activity, whereas drugs that block dopamine receptors have the opposite effect.
As well as revealing a mechanism by which the brain coordinates processes that repeat several times per day, the identification of the DUO could also provide insights into the biological basis of psychiatric disorders. Conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are often accompanied by disturbances in patterns of activity and rest. While these have previously been attributed to the disruption of circadian rhythms, there is little direct evidence for this, which raises the possibility that these changes might instead reflect the disruption of ultradian rhythms.
PMCID: PMC4337656  PMID: 25546305
chronobiology; dopamine; arousal; ultradian; oscillator; dopamine transporter; Mouse
19.  Circadian Regulation of Food-Anticipatory Activity in Molecular Clock–Deficient Mice 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(11):e48892.
In the mammalian brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the anterior hypothalamus is considered to be the principal circadian pacemaker, keeping the rhythm of most physiological and behavioral processes on the basis of light/dark cycles. Because restriction of food availability to a certain time of day elicits anticipatory behavior even after ablation of the SCN, such behavior has been assumed to be under the control of another circadian oscillator. According to recent studies, however, mutant mice lacking circadian clock function exhibit normal food-anticipatory activity (FAA), a daily increase in locomotor activity preceding periodic feeding, suggesting that FAA is independent of the known circadian oscillator. To investigate the molecular basis of FAA, we examined oscillatory properties in mice lacking molecular clock components. Mice with SCN lesions or with mutant circadian periods were exposed to restricted feeding schedules at periods within and outside circadian range. Periodic feeding led to the entrainment of FAA rhythms only within a limited circadian range. Cry1−/− mice, which are known to be a “short-period mutant,” entrained to a shorter period of feeding cycles than did Cry2−/− mice. This result indicated that the intrinsic periods of FAA rhythms are also affected by Cry deficiency. Bmal1−/− mice, deficient in another essential element of the molecular clock machinery, exhibited a pre-feeding increase of activity far from circadian range, indicating a deficit in circadian oscillation. We propose that mice possess a food-entrainable pacemaker outside the SCN in which canonical clock genes such as Cry1, Cry2 and Bmal1 play essential roles in regulating FAA in a circadian oscillatory manner.
PMCID: PMC3492221  PMID: 23145013
20.  Genome-Wide Analysis of SREBP1 Activity around the Clock Reveals Its Combined Dependency on Nutrient and Circadian Signals 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004155.
In mammals, the circadian clock allows them to anticipate and adapt physiology around the 24 hours. Conversely, metabolism and food consumption regulate the internal clock, pointing the existence of an intricate relationship between nutrient state and circadian homeostasis that is far from being understood. The Sterol Regulatory Element Binding Protein 1 (SREBP1) is a key regulator of lipid homeostasis. Hepatic SREBP1 function is influenced by the nutrient-response cycle, but also by the circadian machinery. To systematically understand how the interplay of circadian clock and nutrient-driven rhythm regulates SREBP1 activity, we evaluated the genome-wide binding of SREBP1 to its targets throughout the day in C57BL/6 mice. The recruitment of SREBP1 to the DNA showed a highly circadian behaviour, with a maximum during the fed status. However, the temporal expression of SREBP1 targets was not always synchronized with its binding pattern. In particular, different expression phases were observed for SREBP1 target genes depending on their function, suggesting the involvement of other transcription factors in their regulation. Binding sites for Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 4 (HNF4) were specifically enriched in the close proximity of SREBP1 peaks of genes, whose expression was shifted by about 8 hours with respect to SREBP1 binding. Thus, the cross-talk between hepatic HNF4 and SREBP1 may underlie the expression timing of this subgroup of SREBP1 targets. Interestingly, the proper temporal expression profile of these genes was dramatically changed in Bmal1 −/− mice upon time-restricted feeding, for which a rhythmic, but slightly delayed, binding of SREBP1 was maintained. Collectively, our results show that besides the nutrient-driven regulation of SREBP1 nuclear translocation, a second layer of modulation of SREBP1 transcriptional activity, strongly dependent from the circadian clock, exists. This system allows us to fine tune the expression timing of SREBP1 target genes, thus helping to temporally separate the different physiological processes in which these genes are involved.
Author Summary
Circadian rhythmicity is part of our innate behavior and controls many physiological processes, such as sleeping and waking, activity, neurotransmitter production and a number of metabolic pathways. In mammals, the central circadian pacemaker in the hypothalamus is entrained on a daily basis by environmental cues (i.e. light), thus setting the period length and synchronizing the rhythms of all cells in the body. In the last decades, numerous investigations have highlighted the importance of the internal timekeeping mechanism for maintenance of organism health and longevity. Indeed, the reciprocal regulation of circadian clock and metabolism is now commonly accepted, although still poorly understood at the molecular level. Our global analysis of DNA binding along the day of Sterol Regulatory Element Binding Protein 1 (SREBP1), a key regulator of lipid biosynthesis, represents the first tool to comprehensively explore how its activity is connected to circadian-driven regulatory events. We show that the regulation of SREBP1 action by nutrients relies mainly on the control of its subcellular localization, while the circadian clock influences the promoter specific activity of SREBP1 within the nucleus. Furthermore, we identify the Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 4 (HNF4) as a putative player in the cross-talk between molecular clock and metabolic regulation.
PMCID: PMC3945117  PMID: 24603613
21.  Modeling the Seasonal Adaptation of Circadian Clocks by Changes in the Network Structure of the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(9):e1002697.
The dynamics of circadian rhythms needs to be adapted to day length changes between summer and winter. It has been observed experimentally, however, that the dynamics of individual neurons of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) does not change as the seasons change. Rather, the seasonal adaptation of the circadian clock is hypothesized to be a consequence of changes in the intercellular dynamics, which leads to a phase distribution of electrical activity of SCN neurons that is narrower in winter and broader during summer. Yet to understand this complex intercellular dynamics, a more thorough understanding of the impact of the network structure formed by the SCN neurons is needed. To that effect, we propose a mathematical model for the dynamics of the SCN neuronal architecture in which the structure of the network plays a pivotal role. Using our model we show that the fraction of long-range cell-to-cell connections and the seasonal changes in the daily rhythms may be tightly related. In particular, simulations of the proposed mathematical model indicate that the fraction of long-range connections between the cells adjusts the phase distribution and consequently the length of the behavioral activity as follows: dense long-range connections during winter lead to a narrow activity phase, while rare long-range connections during summer lead to a broad activity phase. Our model is also able to account for the experimental observations indicating a larger light-induced phase-shift of the circadian clock during winter, which we show to be a consequence of higher synchronization between neurons. Our model thus provides evidence that the variations in the seasonal dynamics of circadian clocks can in part also be understood and regulated by the plasticity of the SCN network structure.
Author Summary
Circadian clocks drive the temporal coordination of internal biological processes, which in turn determine daily rhythms in physiology and behavior in the most diverse organisms. In mammals, the 24-hour timing clock resides in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. The SCN is a network of interconnected neurons that serves as a robust self-sustained circadian pacemaker. The electrical activity of these neurons and their synchronization with the 24-hour cycle is established via the environmental day and night cycles. Apart from daily luminance changes, mammals are exposed to seasonal day length changes as well. Remarkably, it has been shown experimentally that the seasonal adaptations to different photoperiods are related to the modifications of the neuronal activity of the SCN due to the plasticity of the network. In our paper, by developing a mathematical model of the SCN architecture, we explore in depth the role of the structure of this important neuronal network. We show that the redistribution of the neuronal activity during winter and summer can in part be explained by structural changes of the network. Interestingly, the alterations of the electrical activity patterns can be related with small-world properties of our proposed SCN network.
PMCID: PMC3447953  PMID: 23028293
22.  Synchronization-Induced Rhythmicity of Circadian Oscillators in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus 
PLoS Computational Biology  2007;3(4):e68.
The suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) host a robust, self-sustained circadian pacemaker that coordinates physiological rhythms with the daily changes in the environment. Neuronal clocks within the SCN form a heterogeneous network that must synchronize to maintain timekeeping activity. Coherent circadian output of the SCN tissue is established by intercellular signaling factors, such as vasointestinal polypeptide. It was recently shown that besides coordinating cells, the synchronization factors play a crucial role in the sustenance of intrinsic cellular rhythmicity. Disruption of intercellular signaling abolishes sustained rhythmicity in a majority of neurons and desynchronizes the remaining rhythmic neurons. Based on these observations, the authors propose a model for the synchronization of circadian oscillators that combines intracellular and intercellular dynamics at the single-cell level. The model is a heterogeneous network of circadian neuronal oscillators where individual oscillators are damped rather than self-sustained. The authors simulated different experimental conditions and found that: (1) in normal, constant conditions, coupled circadian oscillators quickly synchronize and produce a coherent output; (2) in large populations, such oscillators either synchronize or gradually lose rhythmicity, but do not run out of phase, demonstrating that rhythmicity and synchrony are codependent; (3) the number of oscillators and connectivity are important for these synchronization properties; (4) slow oscillators have a higher impact on the period in mixed populations; and (5) coupled circadian oscillators can be efficiently entrained by light–dark cycles. Based on these results, it is predicted that: (1) a majority of SCN neurons needs periodic synchronization signal to be rhythmic; (2) a small number of neurons or a low connectivity results in desynchrony; and (3) amplitudes and phases of neurons are negatively correlated. The authors conclude that to understand the orchestration of timekeeping in the SCN, intracellular circadian clocks cannot be isolated from their intercellular communication components.
Author Summary
Circadian rhythms, characterized by a period close to 24 h, are observed in nearly all living organisms, from cyanobacteria to plants, insects, and mammals. In mammals, the central circadian clock is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, where it receives light signals from the retina. In turn, the SCN controls circadian rhythms in peripheral tissues and behavioral activity. The SCN is composed of about 20,000 neurons characterized by a small size and a high density. Within each individual neuron, clock genes and proteins compose interlocked regulatory feedback loops that generate circadian oscillations on the molecular level. SCN neurons dispersed in cell cultures display cell-autonomous oscillations, with periods ranging from 20 h to 28 h. The ventrolateral part of the SCN receives light input from the retina, serving as a relay for the dorsomedial part. Coupling and synchronization among SCN neurons are ensured by neurotransmitters. A desire to understand how such a network of heterogeneous circadian oscillators achieves a synchronous and coherent output rhythm has motivated extensive experimental and theoretical work. In this paper, we present a molecular model combining intracellular and extracellular dynamics for the SCN circadian system, and propose a novel synchronization mechanism. Our results predict a dual role for the coupling factors within the SCN, both in maintaining the rhythmicity and in promoting the synchronization between the circadian oscillators.
PMCID: PMC1851983  PMID: 17432930
23.  Genetically Blocking the Zebrafish Pineal Clock Affects Circadian Behavior 
PLoS Genetics  2016;12(11):e1006445.
The master circadian clock in fish has been considered to reside in the pineal gland. This dogma is challenged, however, by the finding that most zebrafish tissues contain molecular clocks that are directly reset by light. To further examine the role of the pineal gland oscillator in the zebrafish circadian system, we generated a transgenic line in which the molecular clock is selectively blocked in the melatonin-producing cells of the pineal gland by a dominant-negative strategy. As a result, clock-controlled rhythms of melatonin production in the adult pineal gland were disrupted. Moreover, transcriptome analysis revealed that the circadian expression pattern of the majority of clock-controlled genes in the adult pineal gland is abolished. Importantly, circadian rhythms of behavior in zebrafish larvae were affected: rhythms of place preference under constant darkness were eliminated, and rhythms of locomotor activity under constant dark and constant dim light conditions were markedly attenuated. On the other hand, global peripheral molecular oscillators, as measured in whole larvae, were unaffected in this model. In conclusion, characterization of this novel transgenic model provides evidence that the molecular clock in the melatonin-producing cells of the pineal gland plays a key role, possibly as part of a multiple pacemaker system, in modulating circadian rhythms of behavior.
Author Summary
Most physiological and behavioral processes exhibit daily rhythms which are driven by an internal timing mechanism known as the circadian clock. Circadian systems are thought to be organized in a hierarchical manner, with a central pacemaker in the brain regulating peripheral clocks throughout the body. In fish species, the pineal gland has been considered to function as a central circadian clock organ. Nevertheless, a central role for the pineal gland in the zebrafish circadian system has been questioned, because peripheral clocks in this species are independently synchronized by light. Here we developed a genetically modified zebrafish model in which the molecular clock is selectively blocked in the melatonin-producing cells of the pineal gland. As a result, clock-controlled melatonin production and gene expression in the pineal gland are interrupted. Although the independent peripheral clocks are not affected by this genetic manipulation, circadian rhythms of behavior are attenuated. These findings indicate that the zebrafish pineal gland clock contributes to the generation of daily behavioral rhythms, possibly as part of a multiple pacemaker system.
PMCID: PMC5147766  PMID: 27870848
24.  Transcriptional oscillation of canonical clock genes in mouse peripheral tissues 
The circadian rhythm of about 24 hours is a fundamental physiological function observed in almost all organisms from prokaryotes to humans. Identification of clock genes has allowed us to study the molecular bases for circadian behaviors and temporal physiological processes such as hormonal secretion, and has prompted the idea that molecular clocks reside not only in a central pacemaker, the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of hypothalamus in mammals, but also in peripheral tissues, even in immortalized cells. Furthermore, previous molecular dissection revealed that the mechanism of circadian oscillation at a molecular level is based on transcriptional regulation of clock and clock-controlled genes.
We systematically analyzed the mRNA expression of clock and clock-controlled genes in mouse peripheral tissues. Eight genes (mBmal1, mNpas2, mRev-erbα, mDbp, mRev-erbβ, mPer3, mPer1 and mPer2; given in the temporal order of the rhythm peak) showed robust circadian expressions of mRNAs in all tissues except testis, suggesting that these genes are core molecules of the molecular biological clock. The bioinformatics analysis revealed that these genes have one or a combination of 3 transcriptional elements (RORE, DBPE, and E-box), which are conserved among human, mouse, and rat genome sequences, and indicated that these 3 elements may be responsible for the biological timing of expression of canonical clock genes.
The observation of oscillatory profiles of canonical clock genes is not only useful for physiological and pathological examination of the circadian clock in various organs but also important for systematic understanding of transcriptional regulation on a genome-wide basis. Our finding of the oscillatory expression of canonical clock genes with a temporal order provides us an interesting hypothesis, that cyclic timing of all clock and clock-controlled genes may be dependent on several transcriptional elements including 3 known elements, E-box, RORE, and DBPE.
PMCID: PMC535906  PMID: 15473909
25.  Astakine 2—the Dark Knight Linking Melatonin to Circadian Regulation in Crustaceans 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(3):e1003361.
Daily, circadian rhythms influence essentially all living organisms and affect many physiological processes from sleep and nutrition to immunity. This ability to respond to environmental daily rhythms has been conserved along evolution, and it is found among species from bacteria to mammals. The hematopoietic process of the crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus is under circadian control and is tightly regulated by astakines, a new family of cytokines sharing a prokineticin (PROK) domain. The expression of AST1 and AST2 are light-dependent, and this suggests an evolutionarily conserved function for PROK domain proteins in mediating circadian rhythms. Vertebrate PROKs are transmitters of circadian rhythms of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain of mammals, but the mechanism by which they function is unknown. Here we demonstrate that high AST2 expression is induced by melatonin in the brain. We identify RACK1 as a binding protein of AST2 and further provide evidence that a complex between AST2 and RACK1 functions as a negative-feedback regulator of the circadian clock. By DNA mobility shift assay, we showed that the AST2-RACK1 complex will interfere with the binding between BMAL1 and CLK and inhibit the E-box binding activity of the complex BMAL1-CLK. Finally, we demonstrate by gene knockdown that AST2 is necessary for melatonin-induced inhibition of the complex formation between BMAL1 and CLK during the dark period. In summary, we provide evidence that melatonin regulates AST2 expression and thereby affects the core clock of the crustacean brain. This process may be very important in all animals that have AST2 molecules, i.e. spiders, ticks, crustaceans, scorpions, several insect groups such as Hymenoptera, Hemiptera, and Blattodea, but not Diptera and Coleoptera. Our findings further reveal an ancient evolutionary role for the prokineticin superfamily protein that links melatonin to direct regulation of the core clock gene feedback loops.
Author Summary
Most living organisms are able to sense the time and in particular time of day by their internal clocks. So-called clock proteins control these internal clockworks. BMAL1 and CLK are two important clock proteins, which together form a complex that serves as a transcription factor and controls the production of diurnal proteins. These diurnal proteins, in turn, inhibit the formation of clock proteins so that the concentration of the different proteins in the cell oscillates back and forth throughout the day. External factors may affect the balance of clock proteins, and one such important factor is light. Melatonin is a darkness hormone produced in the brain of most animals during the night, and here we show that melatonin controls the formation of a protein named AST2 in crayfish. AST2 belongs to a group of proteins found in many arthropods, such as spiders, scorpions, crustaceans, and some insects, whose function has been unknown until now. Now we demonstrate that AST2 is induced by melatonin at night and then functions in the internal biological clock by preventing BMAL1 and CLK to form a complex. In this way, AST2 acts as a link between melatonin and the internal biological clock.
PMCID: PMC3605217  PMID: 23555281

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