Developmental biology

Real-time in vivo monitoring of circadian E-box enhancer activity: a robust and sensitive zebrafish reporter line for developmental, chemical and neural biology of the circadian clock.

PMID 23665472


The circadian clock co-ordinates physiology and behavior with the day/night cycle. It consists of a transcriptional-translational feedback loop that generates self-sustained oscillations in transcriptional activity with a roughly 24h period via E-box enhancer elements. Numerous in vivo aspects of core clock feedback loop function are still incompletely understood, including its maturation during development, tissue-specific activity and perturbation in disease states. Zebrafish are promising models for biomedical research due to their high regenerative capacity and suitability for in vivo drug screens, and transgenic zebrafish lines are valuable tools to study transcriptional activity in vivo during development. To monitor the activity of the core clock feedback loop in vivo, we created a transgenic zebrafish line expressing a luciferase reporter gene under the regulation of a minimal promoter and four E-boxes. This Tg(4xE-box:Luc) line shows robust oscillating reporter gene expression both under light-dark cycles and upon release into constant darkness. Luciferase activity starts to oscillate during the first days of development, indicating that the core clock loop is already functional at an early stage. To test whether the Tg(4xE-box:Luc) line could be used in drug screens aimed at identifying compounds that target the circadian clock in vivo, we examined drug effects on circadian period. We were readily able to detect period changes as low as 0.7h upon treatment with the period-lengthening drugs lithium chloride and longdaysin in an assay set-up suitable for large-scale screens. Reporter gene mRNA expression is also detected in the adult brain and reveals differential clock activity across the brain, overlapping with endogenous clock gene expression. Notably, core clock activity is strongly correlated with brain regions where neurogenesis takes place and can be detected in several types of neural progenitors. Our results demonstrate that the Tg(4xE-box:Luc) line is an excellent tool for studying the regulation of the circadian clock and its maturation in vivo and in real time. Furthermore, it is highly suitable for in vivo screens targeting the core clock mechanism that take into account the complexity of an intact organism. Finally, it allows mapping of clock activity in the brain of a vertebrate model organism with prominent adult neurogenesis and high regeneration capacity.