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.