Background: The circadian clock has been linked to reproduction at many levels in mammals. Epidemiological studies of female shift workers have reported increased rates of reproductive abnormalities and adverse pregnancy outcomes, although whether the cause is circadian disruption or another factor associated with shift work is unknown. Here we test whether environmental disruption of circadian rhythms, using repeated shifts of the light:dark (LD) cycle, adversely affects reproductive success in mice.
Methodology/principal findings: Young adult female C57BL/6J (B6) mice were paired with B6 males until copulation was verified by visual identification of vaginal plug formation. Females were then randomly assigned to one of three groups: control, phase-delay or phase-advance. Controls remained on a constant 12-hr light:12-hr dark cycle, whereas phase-delayed and phase-advanced mice were subjected to 6-hr delays or advances in the LD cycle every 5-6 days, respectively. The number of copulations resulting in term pregnancies was determined. Control females had a full-term pregnancy success rate of 90% (11/12), which fell to 50% (9/18; p<0.1) in the phase-delay group and 22% (4/18; p<0.01) in the phase-advance group.
Conclusions/significance: Repeated shifting of the LD cycle, which disrupts endogenous circadian timekeeping, dramatically reduces pregnancy success in mice. Advances of the LD cycle have a greater negative impact on pregnancy outcomes and, in non-pregnant female mice, require longer for circadian re-entrainment, suggesting that the magnitude or duration of circadian misalignment may be related to the severity of the adverse impact on pregnancy. These results explicitly link disruptions of circadian entrainment to adverse pregnancy outcomes in mammals, which may have important implications for the reproductive health of female shift workers, women with circadian rhythm sleep disorders and/or women with disturbed circadian rhythms for other reasons.