We measured c-fos messenger RNA levels and Fos protein immunoreactivity in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of rats as a function of light and time of day. Immunohistochemistry demonstrated a daily rhythm of immunoreactive Fos in the ventrolateral subdivision of the suprachiasmatic nucleus of animals entrained to a 12 h/12 h light-dark cycle; expression was low during the dark phase, peaked about 2 h after light onset at dawn, and remained elevated at an intermediate level for the remainder of the light phase. Immunoblots of nuclear extracts showed a 54,000 mol. wt band that increased in density from the dark phase to the early light phase and decreased again during the late light phase. In situ hybridization using a radiolabeled cDNA probe revealed a c-fos messenger RNA signal that was detected as early as 15 min after dawn, prominent at 30 min, and absent by 2 h. The expression of c-fos messenger RNA and Fos immunoreactivity in the suprachiasmatic nucleus depended on the presence of ambient light. In rats entrained to two daily 1-h light pulses corresponding to dawn and dusk ("skeleton" photoperiod) instead of the complete light-dark cycle, immunoreactive Fos was elicited by the dawn pulse alone and was less persistent than during the complete photoperiod. In rats free-running in constant darkness, c-fos messenger RNA and Fos immunoreactivity were stimulated by 2-h light pulses administered only during the subjective night and early subjective day, but not by light pulses during the middle or late subjective day or in the absence of light pulses.