Blackwell Publishing Journal Backfiles 1879-2005
In mammals, the circadian system is comprised of three major components: the lateral eyes, the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and the pineal gland. The SCN harbours the endogenous oscillator that is entrained every day to the ambient lighting conditions via retinal input. Among the many circadian rhythms in the body that are driven by SCN output, the synthesis of melatonin in the pineal gland functions as a hormonal message encoding for the duration of darkness. Dissemination of this circadian information relies on the activation of melatonin receptors, which are most prominently expressed in the SCN, and the hypophyseal pars tuberalis (PT), but also in many other tissues. A deficiency in melatonin, or a lack in melatonin receptors should therefore have effects on circadian biology. However, our investigations of mice that are melatonin-proficient with mice that do not make melatonin, or alternatively cannot interpret the melatonin message, revealed that melatonin has only minor effects on signal transduction processes within the SCN and sets, at most, the gain for clock error signals mediated via the retino-hypothalamic tract. Melatonin deficiency has no effect on the rhythm generation, or on the maintenance of the oscillation. By contrast, melatonin is essential for rhythmic signalling in the PT. Here, melatonin acts in concert with adenosine to elicit rhythms in clock gene expression. By sensitizing adenylyl cyclase, melatonin opens a temporally-restricted gate and thus lowers the threshold for adenosine to induce cAMP-sensitive genes. This interaction, which determines a temporally precise regulation of gene expression, and by endocrine–endocrine interactions possibly also pituitary output, may reflect a general mechanism by which the master clock in the brain synchronizes clock cells in peripheral tissues that require unique phasing of output signals.
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