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Concept: CLOCK


Humans and other animals are surprisingly adept at estimating the duration of temporal intervals, even without the use of watches and clocks. This ability is typically studied in the lab by asking observers to indicate their estimate of the time between two external sensory events. The results of such studies confirm that humans can accurately estimate durations on a variety of time scales. Although many brain areas are thought to contribute to the representation of elapsed time, recent neurophysiological studies have linked the parietal cortex in particular to the perception of sub-second time intervals. In this Primer, we describe previous work on parietal cortex and time perception, and we highlight the findings of a study published in this issue of PLOS Biology, in which Schneider and Ghose [1] characterize single-neuron responses during performance of a novel “Temporal Production” task. During temporal production, the observer must track the passage of time without anticipating any external sensory event, and it appears that the parietal cortex may use a unique strategy to support this type of measurement.

Concepts: Time, Psychology, Cerebrum, Visual system, Frontal lobe, Cultural studies, CLOCK, Prince


The circadian regulatory network is organized in a hierarchical fashion, with a central oscillator in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) orchestrating circadian oscillations in peripheral tissues. The nature of the relationship between central and peripheral oscillators, however, is poorly understood. We used the tetOFF expression system to specifically restore Clock function in the brains of Clock(Δ19) mice, which have compromised circadian clocks. Rescued mice showed normal locomotor rhythms in constant darkness, with activity period lengths approximating wildtype controls. We used microarray analysis to assess whether brain-specific rescue of circadian rhythmicity was sufficient to restore circadian transcriptional output in the liver. Compared to Clock mutants, Clock-rescue mice showed significantly larger numbers of cycling transcripts with appropriate phase and period lengths, including many components of the core circadian oscillator. This indicates that the SCN oscillator overcomes local circadian defects and signals directly to the molecular clock. Interestingly, the vast majority of core clock genes in liver were responsive to Clock expression in the SCN, suggesting that core clock genes in peripheral tissues are intrinsically sensitive to SCN cues. Nevertheless, most circadian output in the liver was absent or severely low-amplitude in Clock-rescue animals, demonstrating that the majority of peripheral transcriptional rhythms depend on a fully functional local circadian oscillator. We identified several new system-driven rhythmic genes in the liver, including Alas1 and Mfsd2. Finally, we show that 12-hour transcriptional rhythms (i.e., circadian “harmonics”) are disrupted by Clock loss-of-function. Brain-specific rescue of Clock converted 12-hour rhythms into 24-hour rhythms, suggesting that signaling via the central circadian oscillator is required to generate one of the two daily peaks of expression. Based on these data, we conclude that 12-hour rhythms are driven by interactions between central and peripheral circadian oscillators.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Gene expression, Oscillation, Circadian rhythm, Period, Periodic function, CLOCK


Circadian (∼24 h) timekeeping is essential for the lives of many organisms. To understand the biochemical mechanisms of this timekeeping, we have developed a detailed mathematical model of the mammalian circadian clock. Our model can accurately predict diverse experimental data including the phenotypes of mutations or knockdown of clock genes as well as the time courses and relative expression of clock transcripts and proteins. Using this model, we show how a universal motif of circadian timekeeping, where repressors tightly bind activators rather than directly binding to DNA, can generate oscillations when activators and repressors are in stoichiometric balance. Furthermore, we find that an additional slow negative feedback loop preserves this stoichiometric balance and maintains timekeeping with a fixed period. The role of this mechanism in generating robust rhythms is validated by analysis of a simple and general model and a previous model of the Drosophila circadian clock. We propose a double-negative feedback loop design for biological clocks whose period needs to be tightly regulated even with large changes in gene dosage.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Biology, Control theory, Feedback, Negative feedback, Period, CLOCK


Daily rhythmic processes are coordinated by circadian clocks, which are present in numerous central and peripheral tissues. In mammals, two circadian clocks, the food-entrainable oscillator (FEO) and methamphetamine-sensitive circadian oscillator (MASCO), are “black box” mysteries because their anatomical loci are unknown and their outputs are not expressed under normal physiological conditions. In the current study, the investigation of the timekeeping mechanisms of the FEO and MASCO in mice with disruption of all three paralogs of the canonical clock gene, Period, revealed unique and convergent findings. We found that both the MASCO and FEO in Per1(-/-)/Per2(-/-)/Per3(-/-) mice are circadian oscillators with unusually short (∼21 h) periods. These data demonstrate that the canonical Period genes are involved in period determination in the FEO and MASCO, and computational modeling supports the hypothesis that the FEO and MASCO use the same timekeeping mechanism or are the same circadian oscillator. Finally, these studies identify Per1(-/-)/Per2(-/-)/Per3(-/-) mice as a unique tool critical to the search for the elusive anatomical location(s) of the FEO and MASCO.

Concepts: Time, Biology, Oscillation, Circadian rhythm, Period, CLOCK, Watch


In birds, independent circadian clocks reside in the retina, pineal, and hypothalamus, which interact with each other and produce circadian time at the functional level. However, less is known of the molecular clockwork, and of the integration between central and peripheral clocks in birds. The present study investigated this, by monitoring the timed expression of five core clock genes (Per2. Cry1. Cry2. Bmal1, and Clock) and one clock-controlled gene (E4bp4) in a night-migratory songbird, the redheaded bunting (rb; Emberiza bruniceps). The authors first partially cloned these six genes, and then measured their 24-h profiles in central (retina, hypothalamus) and peripheral (liver, heart, stomach, gut, testes) tissues, collected at six times (zeitgeber time 2 [ZT2], ZT6, ZT11, ZT13, ZT18, and ZT23; ZT0 = lights on) from birds (n = 5 per ZT) on 12 h:12 h light-dark cycle. rbPer2. rbCry1. rbBmal1, and rbClock were expressed with a significant rhythm in all the tissues, except in the retina (only rbClock) and testes. rbCry2, however, had tissue-specific expression pattern: a significant rhythm in the hypothalamus, heart, and gut, but not in the retina, liver, stomach, and testes. rbE4bp4 had a significant mRNA rhythm in all the tissues, except retina. Further, rbPer2 mRNA peak was phase aligned with lights on, whereas rbCry1. rbBmal1, and rbE4bp4 mRNA peaks were phase aligned with lights off. rbCry2 and rbClock had tissue-specific scattered peaks. For example, both rbCry2 and rbClock peaks were close to rbCry1 and rbBmal1 peaks, respectively, in the hypothalamus, but not in other tissues. The results are consistent with the autoregulatory circadian feedback loop, and indicate a conserved tissue-level circadian time generation in buntings. Variable phase relationships between gene pairs forming positive and negative limbs of the feedback loop may suggest the tissue-specific contribution of individual core circadian genes in the circadian time generation.

Concepts: DNA, Time, Gene expression, Circadian rhythm, ARNTL, Suprachiasmatic nucleus, CLOCK


To determine the association between common genetic variation in the clock gene pathway and objectively measured acti-graphic sleep and activity rhythm traits.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Cell, Basic-helix-loop-helix, ARNTL, CLOCK, BMAL


The circadian clock is an endogenous timer that anticipates and synchronizes biological processes to the environment. Traditional genetic approaches identified the underlying principles and genetic components, but new discoveries have been greatly impeded by the embedded redundancies that confer necessary robustness to the clock architecture. To overcome this, global (omic) techniques have provided a new depth of information about the Arabidopsis clock. Our understanding of the factors, regulation, and mechanistic connectivity between clock genes and with output processes has substantially broadened through genomic (cDNA libraries, yeast one-hybrid, protein binding microarrays, and ChIP-seq), transcriptomic (microarrays, RNA-seq), proteomic (mass spectrometry and chemical libraries), and metabolomic (mass spectrometry) approaches. This evolution in research will undoubtedly enhance our understanding of how the circadian clock optimizes growth and fitness.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Evolution, Genomics, Functional genomics, CLOCK


Mammalian circadian clocks have a hierarchical organization, governed by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus. The brain itself contains multiple loci that maintain autonomous circadian rhythmicity, but the contribution of the non-SCN clocks to this hierarchy remains unclear. We examine circadian oscillations of clock gene expression in various brain loci and discovered that in mouse, robust, higher amplitude, relatively faster oscillations occur in the choroid plexus (CP) compared to the SCN. Our computational analysis and modeling show that the CP achieves these properties by synchronization of “twist” circadian oscillators via gap-junctional connections. Using an in vitro tissue coculture model and in vivo targeted deletion of the Bmal1 gene to silence the CP circadian clock, we demonstrate that the CP clock adjusts the SCN clock likely via circulation of cerebrospinal fluid, thus finely tuning behavioral circadian rhythms.

Concepts: Hypothalamus, Eye, Cerebrospinal fluid, Circadian rhythm, Period, ARNTL, Suprachiasmatic nucleus, CLOCK


The mammalian circadian system consists of a master clock in the brain that synchronizes subsidiary oscillators in peripheral tissues. The master clock maintains phase coherence in peripheral cells through systemic cues such as feeding-fasting and temperature cycles. Here, we examined the role of oxygen as a resetting cue for circadian clocks. We continuously measured oxygen levels in living animals and detected daily rhythms in tissue oxygenation. Oxygen cycles, within the physiological range, were sufficient to synchronize cellular clocks in a HIF1α-dependent manner. Furthermore, several clock genes responded to changes in oxygen levels through HIF1α. Finally, we found that a moderate reduction in oxygen levels for a short period accelerates the adaptation of wild-type but not of HIF1α-deficient mice to the new time in a jet lag protocol. We conclude that oxygen, via HIF1α activation, is a resetting cue for circadian clocks and propose oxygen modulation as therapy for jet lag.

Concepts: Time, Gene, Circadian rhythm, Period, CLOCK, Clocks, Master clock


The circadian clock system is associated with feeding and mood. Patients with night eating syndrome (NES) delay their eating rhythm and their mood declines during the evening and night, manifesting as time-specific depression. Therefore, we hypothesized that the NES feeding pattern might cause time-specific depression. We established new NES model by restricted feeding with high-fat diet during the inactive period under normal-fat diet ad libitum. The FST (forced swimming test) immobility time in the NES model group was prolonged only after lights-on, corresponding to evening and early night for humans. We examined the effect of the NES feeding pattern on peripheral clocks using PER2::LUCIFERASE knock-in mice and an in vivo monitoring system. Caloric intake during the inactive period would shift the peripheral clock, and might be an important factor in causing the time-specific depression-like behavior. In the NES model group, synthesis of serotonin and norepinephrine were increased, but utilization and metabolism of these monoamines were decreased under stress. Desipramine shortened some mice’s FST immobility time in the NES model group. The present study suggests that the NES feeding pattern causes phase shift of peripheral clocks and malfunction of the monoamine system, which may contribute to the development of time-specific depression.

Concepts: Time, Causality, Nutrition, Neurotransmitter, Serotonin, Dieting, Period, CLOCK