Colour As a Signal for Entraining the Mammalian Circadian Clock. PLoS Biol 13(4): e1002127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002127. April 17, 2015


Twilight is characterised by changes in both quantity (“irradiance”) and quality (“colour”) of light. Animals use the variation in irradiance to adjust their internal circadian clocks, aligning their behaviour and physiology with the solar cycle. However, it is currently unknown whether changes in colour also contribute to this entrainment process. Using environmental measurements, we show here that mammalian blue–yellow colour discrimination provides a more reliable method of tracking twilight progression than simply measuring irradiance. We next use electrophysiological recordings to demonstrate that neurons in the mouse suprachiasmatic circadian clock display the cone-dependent spectral opponency required to make use of this information. Thus, our data show that some clock neurons are highly sensitive to changes in spectral composition occurring over twilight and that this input dictates their response to changes in irradiance. Finally, using mice housed under photoperiods with simulated dawn/dusk transitions, we confirm that spectral changes occurring during twilight are required for appropriate circadian alignment under natural conditions. Together, these data reveal a new sensory mechanism for telling time of day that would be available to any mammalian species capable of chromatic vision.

Author Summary

Animals use an internal brain clock to keep track of time and adjust their behaviour in anticipation of the coming day or night. To be useful, however, this clock must be synchronised to external time. Assessing external time is typically thought to rely on measuring large changes in ambient light intensity that occur over dawn/dusk. The colour of light also changes over these twilight transitions, but it is currently unknown whether such changes in colour are important for synchronising biological clocks to the solar cycle. Here we show that the mammalian blue–yellow colour discrimination axis provides a more reliable indication of twilight progression than a system solely measuring changes in light intensity. We go on to use electrical recordings from the brain clock to reveal the presence of many neurons that can track changes in blue–yellow colour occurring during natural twilight. Finally, using mice housed under lighting regimes with simulated dawn/dusk transitions, we show that changes in colour are required for appropriate biological timing with respect to the solar cycle. In sum, our data reveal a new sensory mechanism for estimating time of day that should be available to all mammals capable of chromatic vision, including humans.

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