Gene responsible for rewinding body's 'clock' described by scientists at TSRI

in the seasons--a system that determines when they shed their leaves or produce seeds in the fall, or make flowers or fruit in the spring.

Humans also have circadian rhythms and entrain our internal clocks to the 24-hour day. Under normal conditions, we time our major activities with the light phase, we sleep during the dark phase, and even our vital signs follow this pattern. Our blood pressure fluctuates daily, rising and falling at predictable times of day or night.

"Even if you put the lights out on us, we would still [time] our activity to when our body expects light," says investigator John Hogenesch, Ph.D., another one of the paper's authors.

Evolution did not occur in an isolation chamber, however, and nature has programmed organisms to entrain each day their circadian rhythms to the 24-hour day, which allows them to anticipate and adapt to daily variations in the environment.

This "phase-shifting" is a necessary part of maintaining a constant schedule, and people who do not have the ability to perform this phase shifting are often stricken with sleeping disorders. In addition, phase shifting is relevant to the ability to adapt to a change in schedule such as during jet travel or shift work.

But until this latest study, the genes that are responsible for doing this phase-shifting were not known. Melanopsin was hypothesized to be this photoreceptor, but scientists lacked proof of it until now.

A Light Even the Blind Can See

In mammals, melanopsin is expressed in approximately 1000 cells per retina. "Most of these cells project directly to the master circadian oscillator in the brain," says Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D., a graduate of TSRI's Kellogg School of Science and Technology.

The master circadian oscillator is a small center in the brain's hypothalamus with about 10,000 neurons that sits above the optic chasm--the location where the optic nerves cross each other.


Contact: Keith McKeown
Scripps Research Institute

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