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Emerging Models for the Molecular Basis of Mammalian Circadian Timing

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Mammalian circadian timekeeping arises from a transcription-based feedback loop driven by a set of dedicated clock proteins. At its core, the heterodimeric transcription factor CLOCK:BMAL1 activates expression of Period, Cryptochrome, and Rev-Erb genes, which feed back to repress transcription and create oscillations in gene expression that confer circadian timing cues to cellular processes. The formation of different clock protein complexes throughout this transcriptional cycle helps to establish the intrinsic ∼24 h periodicity of the clock; however, current models of circadian timekeeping lack the explanatory power to fully describe this process. Recent studies confirm the presence of at least three distinct regulatory complexes: a transcriptionally active state comprising the CLOCK:BMAL1 heterodimer with its coactivator CBP/p300, an early repressive state containing PER:CRY complexes, and a late repressive state marked by a poised but inactive, DNA-bound CLOCK:BMAL1:CRY1 complex. In this review, we analyze high-resolution structures of core circadian transcriptional regulators and integrate biochemical data to suggest how remodeling of clock protein complexes may be achieved throughout the 24 h cycle. Defining these detailed mechanisms will provide a foundation for understanding the molecular basis of circadian timing and help to establish new platforms for the discovery of therapeutics to manipulate the clock.

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