Circadian rhythms, characterized by a period of about 24h, are the most widespread biological rhythms generated autonomously at the molecular level. The core molecular mechanism responsible for circadian oscillations relies on the negative regulation exerted by a protein on the expression of its own gene. Deterministic models account for the occurrence of autonomous circadian oscillations, for their entrainment by light-dark cycles, and for their phase shifting by light pulses. Stochastic versions of these models take into consideration the molecular fluctuations that arise when the number of molecules involved in the regulatory mechanism is low. Numerical simulations of the stochastic models show that robust circadian oscillations can already occur with a limited number of mRNA and protein molecules, in the range of a few tens and hundreds, respectively. Various factors affect the robustness of circadian oscillations with respect to molecular noise. Besides an increase in the number of molecules, entrainment by light-dark cycles, and cooperativity in repression enhance robustness, whereas the proximity of a bifurcation point leads to less robust oscillations. Another parameter that appears to be crucial for the coherence of circadian rhythms is the binding/unbinding rate of the inhibitory protein to the promoter of the clock gene. Intercellular coupling further increases the robustness of circadian oscillations.

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