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News Release 96-011

Light Sets the Molecular Controls of Circadian Rhythm

March 21, 1996

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Light sets the circadian rhythm by eliminating a key protein needed for the molecular mechanism of the body's clock, according to National Science Foundation (NSF) scientists publishing in the March 22 issue of the journal Science. The findings, from fruit fly studies, may help explain light's effect on the daily cycle that influences sleep, mental alertness, pain sensitivity and temperature and hormone levels.

"Plants and animals, including insects, adjust their intrinsic circadian cycles, which can range from about 23 to 25 hours, to the 24-hour solar day. We have identified a molecular key to light's control in flies and expect to find a similar mechanism in humans, which may explain how people adjust their body clocks after traveling across time zones," says Michael W. Young, of Rockefeller University in New York, and director of the NSF Science and Technology Center for Biological Timing at Rockefeller.

Both fruit flies and humans have activity rhythms that adapt perfectly to a 24-hour cycle of night and day, or can be set to new time zones by light. The influence of light is quite strong, Young notes. For example, fruit flies raised in total darkness maintain an activity rhythm of about 23.5 hours, but a brief period in light can either delay or advance the cycle, depending on the timing of the light exposure within the cycle.

In the fly, the rhythm is set by the action of two proteins, PER and TIM, made by the period (per) and timeless (tim) genes, respectively. All cells of the fly have per and tim genes, but the brain cells set the body clock. PER and TIM proteins accumulate in the nuclei of eye cells sensitive to light, called photoreceptors, as well as pacemaker cells of the central brain.

The fly circadian cycle begins around noon when the per and tim genes transcribe their DNA into RNA, molecules essential to create the PER and TIM proteins, but only after sunset does the accumulated RNA prompt the cell to stockpile the PER and TIM proteins. At night, the proteins pair and migrate into the nucleus, home to cells' genetic material. About four hours before dawn, the level of PER/TIM protein complexes peaks, which signals the per and tim genes to stop making RNA and, hence, the protein complexes. Near dawn, the PER/TIM protein complexes disintegrate. With the complexes depleted, the per and tim genes begin to make RNA again by midday. The scientists found that the TIM and PER proteins need each other to get into the nucleus. However, if flies are exposed to light, one of the proteins, TIM, rapidly degrades, which blocks the movement of the remaining protein to the nucleus.

"In the natural environment, even though RNA levels have been rising since midday, sunlight keeps TIM protein from accumulating until nightfall," explains Young. "This postponement delays the binding and nuclear activity of the PER and TIM proteins until the night part of the cycle."

The findings also suggest how light exposure at the different times of day adapts the rhythm, such as adjusting to a new time zone. For example, Young and his colleagues found that flies exposed to one hour of daylight in the evening, around 10 p.m., delayed the normal night time accumulation of the TIM protein, and postponed the behavioral cycle by four to five hours, as if the fly were adapting to westward travel. TIM proteins did accumulate later, in keeping with the observed behavioral delay, Young notes. In contrast, flies exposed to daylight an hour before dawn prematurely lost their TIM proteins, which did not reappear until the following afternoon. This light exposure advanced the behavioral rhythm of the flies by one to two hours, an adaptation expected for flies traveling east.


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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, its budget is $7.8 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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