The mammalian circadian system is a complex hierarchical temporal network which is organized around an ensemble of uniquely coupled cells comprising the principal circadian pacemaker in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. This central pacemaker is entrained each day by the environmental light/dark cycle and transmits synchronizing cues to cell-autonomous oscillators in tissues throughout the body. Within cells of the central pacemaker and the peripheral tissues, the underlying molecular mechanism by which oscillations in gene expression occur involves interconnected feedback loops of transcription and translation. Over the past 10 years, we have learned much regarding the genetics of this system, including how it is particularly resilient when challenged by single-gene mutations, how accessory transcriptional loops enhance the robustness of oscillations, how epigenetic mechanisms contribute to the control of circadian gene expression, and how, from coupled neuronal networks, emergent clock properties arise. Here, we will explore the genetics of the mammalian circadian system from cell-autonomous molecular oscillations, to interactions among central and peripheral oscillators and ultimately, to the daily rhythms of behavior observed in the animal.
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