Restoring circadian synchrony in vitro facilitates physiological responses to environmental chemicals

Environ Int. 2020 Jan;134:105265. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2019.105265. Epub 2019 Nov 14.


Background: The growing requirement of hazard and risk assessment of environmental chemicals and the efforts to minimize animal testing, increases the demand for innovative and predictive in vitro test systems in toxicology, reflecting the physiological conditions of human nature. Here, an elemental factor regulating a variety of physiological processes is the day-night rhythm. This circadian rhythm, describing a biological oscillation with a 24-h period is hardly acknowledged in toxicology and test method development. Whilst, in animals or humans the entire organism exhibits a rigorous cellular circadian synchrony, in conventional in vitro systems each cell follows its own rhythm, due to the absence of appropriate synchronizing signals.

Objective: Here we investigated whether circadian synchronization of human cells in an in vitro system improves the cellular response and, thus, increases the sensitivity of the test system. Since the circadian regulation of metabolism is particularly well understood, and dioxin and dioxin-like compounds are of major concern for environmental health we focused on the ubiquitous drug metabolizing detoxification system mediated by the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR).

Methods: To this end, we applied various prototypical AHR activators onto different human cell lines under non-synchronized or circadian synchronized conditions and determined the dose response on representative endogenous target genes.

Results: Remarkably, the cellular response dynamic upon chemical treatment was substantially enhanced in circadian synchronized cells and followed a rhythmic expression pattern. This broader dynamic range was associated with a strikingly higher induction of AHR target genes and the corresponding enzymatic activity, thereby rather mimicking the in vivo situation.

Conclusion: Our findings indicate that a synchronized circadian rhythm in a cell culture based test system can improve the physiological relevance of an appropriate in vitro method by reflecting the biological in vivo situation more closely. Accordingly, it is a promising tool to facilitate the wide acceptance of in vitro methods in the field of regulatory toxicology and to further optimize the toxicological assessment of environmental chemicals.

Keywords: CYP1A1; Circadian rhythm; Environmental chemicals; In vitro; TCDD; Xenobiotic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1
  • Dioxins / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon


  • Dioxins
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1