A reduced model clarifies the role of feedback loops and time delays in the Drosophila circadian oscillator.
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Although several detailed models of molecular processes essential for circadian oscillations have been developed, their complexity makes intuitive understanding of the oscillation mechanism difficult. The goal of the present study was to reduce a previously developed, detailed model to a minimal representation of the transcriptional regulation essential for circadian rhythmicity in Drosophila. The reduced model contains only two differential equations, each with time delays. A negative feedback loop is included, in which PER protein represses per transcription by binding the dCLOCK transcription factor. A positive feedback loop is also included, in which dCLOCK indirectly enhances its own formation. The model simulated circadian oscillations, light entrainment, and a phase-response curve with qualitative similarities to experiment. Time delays were found to be essential for simulation of circadian oscillations with this model. To examine the robustness of the simplified model to fluctuations in molecule numbers, a stochastic variant was constructed. Robust circadian oscillations and entrainment to light pulses were simulated with fewer than 80 molecules of each gene product present on average. Circadian oscillations persisted when the positive feedback loop was removed. Moreover, elimination of positive feedback did not decrease the robustness of oscillations to stochastic fluctuations or to variations in parameter values. Such reduced models can aid understanding of the oscillation mechanisms in Drosophila and in other organisms in which feedback regulation of transcription may play an important role.