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Cell Tissue Res. 2002 Jul;309(1):35-45. Epub 2002 May 25.

Rhythm and soul in the avian pineal.

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  • 1Section on Biochemical Pharmacology, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Regulation, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-4068, USA.


The avian pineal gland, like that of mammals, displays a striking circadian rhythm in the synthesis and release of the hormone melatonin. However, the pineal gland plays a more prominent role in avian circadian organization and differs from that in mammals in several ways. One important difference is that the pineal gland in birds is relatively autonomous. In addition to making melatonin, the avian pineal contains photoreceptors and a circadian clock (thus, an entire circadian system) within itself. Furthermore, avian pineals retain their circadian properties in organ or dispersed cell culture, making biochemical components of regulatory pathways accessible. Avian pinealocytes are directly photosensitive, and novel candidates for the unidentified photopigments involved in the regulation of clock function and melatonin production, including melanopsin, pinopsin, iodopsin, and the cryptochromes, are being evaluated. Transduction pathways and second messengers that may be involved in acute and entraining effects, including cyclic nucleotides, calcium fluxes, and protein kinases, have been, and continue to be, examined. Moreover, several clock genes similar to those found in Drosophila and mouse are expressed, and their dynamics and interactions are being studied. Finally, the bases for acute and clock regulation of the key enzyme in melatonin synthesis, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AA-NAT), are described. The ability to study entrainment, the oscillator itself, and a physiological output in the same tissue at the same time makes the avian pineal gland an excellent model to study the bases and regulation of circadian rhythms.

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