The Environment is Everything That Isn't Me: Molecular Mechanisms and Evolutionary Dynamics of Insect Clocks in Variable Surroundings

Circadian rhythms are oscillations in behavior, metabolism and physiology that have a period close to 24 h. These rhythms are controlled by an internal pacemaker that evolved under strong selective pressures imposed by environmental cyclical changes, mainly of light and temperature. The molecular nature of the circadian pacemaker was extensively studied in a number of organisms under controlled laboratory conditions. But although these studies were fundamental to our understanding of the circadian clock, most of the environmental conditions used resembled rather crudely the relatively constant situation at lower latitudes. At higher latitudes light-dark and temperature cycles vary considerably across different seasons, with summers having long and hot days and winters short and cold ones. Considering these differences and other external cues, such as moonlight, recent studies in more natural and semi natural situations revealed unexpected features at both molecular and behavioral levels, highlighting the dramatic influence of multiple environmental variables in the molecular clockwork. This emphasizes the importance of studying the circadian clock in the wild, where seasonal environmental changes fine-tune the underlying circadian mechanism, affecting population dynamics and impacting the geographical variation in clock genes. Indeed, latitudinal clines in clock gene frequencies suggest that natural selection and demography shape the circadian clock over wide geographical ranges. In this review we will discuss the recent advances in understanding the molecular underpinnings of the circadian clock, how it resonates with the surrounding variables (both in the laboratory and in semi-natural conditions) and its impact on population dynamics and evolution. In addition, we will elaborate on how next generation sequencing technologies will complement classical reductionist approaches by identifying causal variants in natural populations that will link genetic variation to circadian phenotypes, illuminating how the circadian clock functions in the real world.


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