CRYPTOCHROMES confer robustness, not rhythmicity, to circadian timekeeping

EMBO J. 2021 Apr 1;40(7):e106745. doi: 10.15252/embj.2020106745. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


Circadian rhythms are a pervasive property of mammalian cells, tissues and behaviour, ensuring physiological adaptation to solar time. Models of cellular timekeeping revolve around transcriptional feedback repression, whereby CLOCK and BMAL1 activate the expression of PERIOD (PER) and CRYPTOCHROME (CRY), which in turn repress CLOCK/BMAL1 activity. CRY proteins are therefore considered essential components of the cellular clock mechanism, supported by behavioural arrhythmicity of CRY-deficient (CKO) mice under constant conditions. Challenging this interpretation, we find locomotor rhythms in adult CKO mice under specific environmental conditions and circadian rhythms in cellular PER2 levels when CRY is absent. CRY-less oscillations are variable in their expression and have shorter periods than wild-type controls. Importantly, we find classic circadian hallmarks such as temperature compensation and period determination by CK1δ/ε activity to be maintained. In the absence of CRY-mediated feedback repression and rhythmic Per2 transcription, PER2 protein rhythms are sustained for several cycles, accompanied by circadian variation in protein stability. We suggest that, whereas circadian transcriptional feedback imparts robustness and functionality onto biological clocks, the core timekeeping mechanism is post-translational.

Keywords: cellular clock; circadian rhythm; cryptochrome; daily timekeeping; robustness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Cryptochromes / deficiency
  • Cryptochromes / genetics
  • Cryptochromes / metabolism*
  • Drosophila melanogaster
  • Female
  • Locomotion
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Period Circadian Proteins / genetics
  • Period Circadian Proteins / metabolism


  • Cry1 protein, mouse
  • Cry2 protein, mouse
  • Cryptochromes
  • Per2 protein, mouse
  • Period Circadian Proteins