A remarkably constant feature of vertebrate physiology is a daily rhythm of melatonin in the circulation, which serves as the hormonal signal of the daily light/dark cycle: melatonin levels are always elevated at night. The biochemical basis of this hormonal rhythm is one of the enzymes involved in melatonin synthesis in the pineal gland-the melatonin rhythm-generating enzyme-serotonin N-acetyltransferase (arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase, AA-NAT, E.C. 126.96.36.199). In all vertebrates, enzyme activity is high at night. This reflects the influences of internal circadian clocks and of light. The dynamics of this enzyme are remarkable. The magnitude of the nocturnal increase in enzyme activity ranges from 7- to 150-fold on a species-to-species basis among vertebrates. In all cases the nocturnal levels of AA-NAT activity decrease very rapidly following exposure to light. A major advance in the study of the molecular basis of these changes was the cloning of cDNA encoding the enzyme. This has resulted in rapid progress in our understanding of the biology and structure of AA-NAT and how it is regulated. Several constant features of this enzyme have become apparent, including structural features, tissue distribution, and a close association of enzyme activity and protein. However, some remarkable differences among species in the molecular mechanisms involved in regulating the enzyme have been discovered. In sheep, AA-NAT mRNA levels show relatively little change over a 24-hour period and changes in AA-NAT activity are primarily regulated at the protein level. In the rat, AA-NAT is also regulated at a protein level; however, in addition, AA-NAT mRNA levels exhibit a 150-fold rhythm, which reflects cyclic AMP-dependent regulation of expression of the AA-NAT gene. In the chicken, cyclic AMP acts primarily at the protein level and a rhythm in AA-NAT mRNA is driven by a noncyclic AMP-dependent mechanism linked to the clock within the pineal gland. Finally, in the trout, AA-NAT mRNA levels show little change and activity is regulated by light acting directly on the pineal gland. The variety of mechanisms that have evolved among vertebrates to achieve the same goal-a rhythm in melatonin-underlines the important role melatonin plays as the hormonal signal of environmental lighting in vertebrates.