Seasonal mammals typically of temperate or boreal habitats use the predictable annual cycle of daylength to initiate a suite of physiological and behavioural changes in anticipation of adverse environmental winter conditions, unfavourable for survival and reproduction. Daylength is encoded as the duration of production of the pineal hormone melatonin, but how the melatonin signal is decoded has been elusive. From the studies carried out in birds and mammals together with the advent of technologies such as microarray analysis of gene expression, progress has been achieved to demystify how seasonal physiology is regulated in response to the duration of melatonin signalling. The critical tissue for the action of melatonin is the pars tuberalis (PT) where melatonin receptors are located. At the molecular level, regulation of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) signalling in this tissue is likely to be a key event for melatonin action, either an acute inhibitory action or sensitization of this pathway by prolonged stimulation of melatonin receptors reflecting durational melatonin presence. Melatonin action at the PT has been shown to have both positive and negative effects on gene transcription, incorporating components of the circadian clock as part of the mechanism of decoding the melatonin signal and regulating thyrotrophin-stimulating hormone (TSH) expression, a key output hormone of the PT. Microarray analysis of gene expression of PT tissue exposed to long and short photoperiods has identified important new genes that may be regulated by melatonin and contributing to the seasonal regulation of TSH production by this tissue. In the brain, tanycytes lining the third ventricle of the hypothalamus and regulation of thyroid hormone synthesis by PT-derived TSH in these cells are now established as an important component of the pathway leading to seasonal changes in physiology. Beyond the tanycyte, identified changes in gene expression for neuropeptides, receptors and other signalling molecules pinpoint some of the areas of the brain, the hypothalamus in particular, that are likely to be involved in the regulation of seasonal physiology.
- pars tuberalis
- thyroid hormone