Biological timing and the clock metaphor: oscillatory and hourglass mechanisms

Chronobiol Int. 2001 May;18(3):329-69. doi: 10.1081/cbi-100103961.


Living organisms have developed a multitude of timing mechanisms--"biological clocks." Their mechanisms are based on either oscillations (oscillatory clocks) or unidirectional processes (hourglass clocks). Oscillatory clocks comprise circatidal, circalunidian, circadian, circalunar, and circannual oscillations--which keep time with environmental periodicities--as well as ultradian oscillations, ovarian cycles, and oscillations in development and in the brain, which keep time with biological timescales. These clocks mainly determine time points at specific phases of their oscillations. Hourglass clocks are predominantly found in development and aging and also in the brain. They determine time intervals (duration). More complex timing systems combine oscillatory and hourglass mechanisms, such as the case for cell cycle, sleep initiation, or brain clocks, whereas others combine external and internal periodicities (photoperiodism, seasonal reproduction). A definition of a biological clock may be derived from its control of functions external to its own processes and its use in determining temporal order (sequences of events) or durations. Biological and chemical oscillators are characterized by positive and negative feedback (or feedforward) mechanisms. During evolution, living organisms made use of the many existing oscillations for signal transmission, movement, and pump mechanisms, as well as for clocks. Some clocks, such as the circadian clock, that time with environmental periodicities are usually compensated (stabilized) against temperature, whereas other clocks, such as the cell cycle, that keep time with an organismic timescale are not compensated. This difference may be related to the predominance of negative feedback in the first class of clocks and a predominance of positive feedback (autocatalytic amplification) in the second class. The present knowledge of a compensated clock (the circadian oscillator) and an uncompensated clock (the cell cycle), as well as relevant models, are briefly re viewed. Hourglass clocks are based on linear or exponential unidirectional processes that trigger events mainly in the course of development and aging. An important hourglass mechanism within the aging process is the limitation of cell division capacity by the length of telomeres. The mechanism of this clock is briefly reviewed. In all clock mechanisms, thresholds at which "dependent variables" are triggered play an important role.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Cell Cycle
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Telomere / physiology
  • Time Factors