The mammalian circadian system: a hierarchical multi-oscillator structure for generating circadian rhythm

J Physiol Sci. 2018 May;68(3):207-219. doi: 10.1007/s12576-018-0597-5. Epub 2018 Feb 19.


The circadian nature of physiology and behavior is regulated by a circadian clock that generates intrinsic rhythms with a periodicity of approximately 24 h. The mammalian circadian system is composed of a hierarchical multi-oscillator structure, with the central clock located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus regulating the peripheral clocks found throughout the body. In the past two decades, key clock genes have been discovered in mammals and shown to be interlocked in transcriptional and translational feedback loops. At the cellular level, each cell is governed by its own independent clock; and yet, these cellular circadian clocks in the SCN form regional oscillators that are further coupled to one another to generate a single rhythm for the tissue. The oscillatory coupling within and between the regional oscillators appears to be critical for the extraordinary stability and the wide range of adaptability of the circadian clock, the mechanism of which is now being elucidated with newly advanced molecular tools.

Keywords: Circadian clock; Clock gene; Luciferase reporter; Oscillatory coupling; Suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / physiology
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / physiology