The environment and the internal clocks: The study of their relationships from prehistoric to modern times

Chronobiol Int. 2024 Jun;41(6):859-887. doi: 10.1080/07420528.2024.2353857. Epub 2024 May 17.


The origin of biological rhythms goes back to the very beginning of life. They are observed in the animal and plant world at all levels of organization, from cells to ecosystems. As early as the 18th century, plant scientists were the first to explain the relationship between flowering cycles and environmental cycles, emphasizing the importance of daily light-dark cycles and the seasons. Our temporal structure is controlled by external and internal rhythmic signals. Light is the main synchronizer of the circadian system, as daily exposure to light entrains our clock over 24 hours, the endogenous period of the circadian system being close to, but not exactly, 24 hours. In 1960, a seminal scientific meeting, the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Biological Rhythms, brought together all the biological rhythms scientists of the time, a number of whom are considered the founders of modern chronobiology. All aspects of biological rhythms were addressed, from the properties of circadian rhythms to their practical and ecological aspects. Birth of chronobiology dates from this period, with the definition of its vocabulary and specificities in metabolism, photoperiodism, animal physiology, etc. At around the same time, and right up to the present day, research has focused on melatonin, the circadian neurohormone of the pineal gland, with data on its pattern, metabolism, control by light and clinical applications. However, light has a double face, as it has positive effects as a circadian clock entraining agent, but also deleterious effects, as it can lead to chronodisruption when exposed chronically at night, which can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. Finally, research over the past few decades has unraveled the anatomical location of circadian clocks and their cellular and molecular mechanisms. This recent research has in turn allowed us to explain how circadian rhythms control physiology and health.

Keywords: Environment; biological rhythms; chronodisruption; circadian clock; clock genes; day-night; history.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology
  • Circadian Rhythm* / physiology
  • Environment
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Photoperiod*