The mammalian circadian clock is driven by a transcriptional–translational feedback loop, which produces robust 24-hr rhythms. Proper oscillation of the clock depends on the complex formation and periodic turnover of the Period and Cryptochrome proteins, which together inhibit their own transcriptional activator complex, CLOCK-BMAL1. We determined the crystal structure of the CRY-binding domain (CBD) of PER2 in complex with CRY2 at 2.8 Å resolution. PER2-CBD adopts a highly extended conformation, embracing CRY2 with a sinuous binding mode. Its N-terminal end tucks into CRY adjacent to a large pocket critical for CLOCK-BMAL1 binding, while its C-terminal half flanks the CRY2 C-terminal helix and sterically hinders the recognition of CRY2 by the FBXL3 ubiquitin ligase. Unexpectedly, a strictly conserved intermolecular zinc finger, whose integrity is important for clock rhythmicity, further stabilizes the complex. Our structure-guided analyses show that these interspersed CRY-interacting regions represent multiple functional modules of PERs at the CRY-binding interface.
Since the very simplest organisms emerged on earth, the rhythms of life have been synchronized with the rising and setting of the sun. Even the most basic life forms have internal clocks that help them to maintain daily routines and adapt to shifting seasons. In animals, these internal clocks regulate processes such as the release of hormones that wake an animal up and the expression of genes necessary to carry out the activities of daily life. Later on, the clocks then trigger the release of hormones that cause drowsiness and the expression of the genes that are active during rest.
In mammals, these internal circadian rhythms are maintained by a feedback loop governed by four key proteins. Two of these proteins—CLOCK and BMAL1—work together to begin a process called transcription, whereby sections of DNA are used as a template to copy the information needed to make a protein. The two activating proteins CLOCK and BMAL1 recognize the sections of DNA where the genes that are controlled by the circadian clock are located and selectively turn on the expression of those genes.
Expression of the two other key circadian proteins—Period and Cryptochrome—is switched on by CLOCK and BMAL1. As Period and Cryptochrome proteins accumulate, they begin to inhibit the activity of CLOCK and BMAL1, helping to reduce the rate at which the circadian genes are transcribed as the day progresses.
Nangle et al. provide new insights into how the Period and Cryptochrome proteins interact with each other, using X-ray crystallography to reveal the molecular level details of the bond between the two proteins. Period stretches out as it ‘embraces’ Cryptochrome. One end of the Period protein then tucks into part of the Cryptochrome structure that is next to a large pocket. This pocket is where the Cryptochrome protein binds to CLOCK and BMAL1, suggesting that Period can influence whether this binding occurs.
The other end of the Period protein covers one end of the Cryptochrome protein. By doing so, enzymes cannot bind there, and so cannot break down Cryptochrome. Nangle et al. also discovered that a finger-like projection that includes a zinc ion acts as a clasp, strengthening the bond between Period and Cryptochrome.
These findings help to demonstrate how Period proteins act as a timekeeper that regulates how long Cryptochrome can turn down the activity of CLOCK and BMAL1. A deeper understanding of the molecular choreography among the four clock proteins holds promise for developing medications to treat the sleep disorders and circadian clock disruptions associated with a modern lifestyle.