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J Biol Rhythms. 2003 Jun;18(3):250-60.

Peripheral circadian oscillators in mammals: time and food.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Biology, NCCR Frontiers in Genetics, University of Geneva, Sciences II, Quai Ernest Ansermet 30, 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland.


Peripheral cells from mammalian tissues, while perfectly capable of circadian rhythm generation, are not light sensitive and thus have to be entrained by nonphotic cues. Feeding time is the dominant zeitgeber for peripheral mammalian clocks: Daytime feeding of nocturnal laboratory rodents completely inverts the phase of circadian gene expression in many tissues, including liver, heart, kidney, and pancreas, but it has no effect on the SCN pacemaker. It is thus plausible that in intact animals, the SCN synchronizes peripheral docks primarily through temporal feeding patterns that are imposed through behavioral rest-activity cycles. In addition, body temperature rhythms, which are themselves dependent on both feeding patterns and rest-activity cycles, can sustain circadian, clock gene activity in vivo and in vitro. The SCN may also influence the phase of rhythmic gene expression in peripheral tissues through direct chemical pathways. In fact, many chemical signals induce circadian gene expression in tissue culture cells. Some of these have been shown to elicit phase shifts when injected into intact animals and are thus candidates for physiologically relevant timing cues. While the response of the SCN to light is strictly gated to respond only during the night, peripheral oscillators can be chemically phase shifted throughout the day. For example, injection of dexamethasone, a glucocorticoid receptor agonist, resets the phase of circadian liver gene expression during the entire 24-h day. Given the bewildering array of agents capable of influencing peripheral clocks, the identification of physiologically relevant agents used by the SCN to synchronize peripheral clocks will clearly be an arduous undertaking. Nevertheless, we feel that experimental systems by which this enticing problem can be tackled are now at hand.

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