Background: Circadian clocks regulate the gene expression, metabolism and behaviour of most eukaryotes, controlling an orderly succession of physiological processes that are synchronised with the environmental day/night cycle. Central circadian pacemakers that control animal behaviour are located in the brains of insects and rodents, but the location of such a pacemaker has not been determined in plants. Peripheral plant and animal tissues also maintain circadian rhythms when isolated in culture, indicating that these tissues contain circadian clocks. The degree of autonomy that the multiple, peripheral circadian clocks have in the intact organism is unclear.
Results: We used the bioluminescent luciferase reporter gene to monitor rhythmic expression from three promoters in transgenic Arabidopsis and tobacco plants. The rhythmic expression of a single gene could be set at up to three phases in different anatomical locations of a single plant, by applying light/dark treatments to restricted tissue areas. The initial phases were stably maintained after the entraining treatments ended, indicating that the circadian oscillators in intact plants are autonomous. This result held for all the vegetative plant organs and for promoters expressed in all major cell types. The rhythms of one organ were unaffected by entrainment of the rest of the plant, indicating that phase-resetting signals are also autonomous.
Conclusions: Higher plants contain a spatial array of autonomous circadian clocks that regulate gene expression without a localised pacemaker. Circadian timing in plants might be less accurate but more flexible than the vertebrate circadian system.