The rising and setting of the sun causes dramatic oscillations in light and temperature. Organisms from bacteria to humans involuntarily anticipate these daily swings by means of an endogenous clock called the circadian clock. At the heart of the clock is an oscillator, which generates a ~24-h biochemical rhythm. This rhythm has a profound influence on metabolism, reproductive fitness, health, and disease. Yet, the molecular mechanisms of circadian oscillators remain elusive. Due to the pervasive importance of circadian rhythms to life on earth, this major gap in knowledge has a broad impact on the field of life sciences.

The central focus of my laboratory is to fill in this major gap in knowledge by elucidating the timing mechanism of the circadian oscillator of cyanobacteria. Recently, we made some exciting findings that were highlighted by Chemical & Engineering NewsPNAS, and Nature Reviews Microbiology

The oscillator of the cyanobacterial clock is composed of only three proteins: KaiA, KaiB, and KaiC. When mixed together in a test tube with ATP, they generate a self-sustained circadian rhythm of phosphorylation of KaiC for several days. Our objective is to develop a comprehensive understanding of how a simple mixture of these three proteins keeps time.

The mechanism of this oscillator remains far from understood. The most pressing questions for our laboratory include: 

    1. How do KaiA and KaiB interact with KaiC, and how do these interactions regulate the autokinase and autophosphatase activities of KaiC?

    2. How does phosphorylation regulate the function of KaiC?

    3. Why is the oscillator so slow?

    4. How are the circadian rhythms generated by the KaiABC oscillator transduced into rhythms of gene expression?

What our graduate students and postdocs are doing to answer these questions: 

     Students and postdocs use an array of biochemical, chromatographic, and spectroscopic techniques, especially nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, to test hypotheses formulated on our foundation of existing knowledge and new preliminary data. Recent discoveries by our lab led to exciting new insights on the molecular mechanism of this biological oscillator (see figure below):