Why do we experience the ailments of jetlag when we travel across time zones? Why is working night-shifts so detrimental to our health? In other words, why can’t we readily choose and stick to non-24 h rhythms? Actually, our daily behavior and physiology do not simply result from the passive reaction of our organism to the external cycle of days and nights. Instead, an internal clock drives the variations in our bodily functions with a period close to 24 h, which is supposed to enhance fitness to regular and predictable changes of our natural environment. This so-called circadian clock relies on a molecular mechanism that generates rhythmicity in virtually all of our cells. However, the robustness of the circadian clock and its resilience to phase shifts emerge from the interaction between cell-autonomous oscillators within the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the hypothalamus. Thus, managing jetlag and other circadian disorders will undoubtedly require extensive knowledge of the functional organization of SCN cell networks. Here, we review the molecular and cellular principles of circadian timekeeping, and their integration in the multi-cellular complexity of the SCN. We propose that new, in vivo imaging techniques now enable to address these questions directly in freely moving animals.
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