The Circadian Timing System and Environmental Circadian Disruption: From Follicles to Fertility

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The internal or circadian timing system is deeply integrated in female reproductive physiology. Considerable details of rheostatic timing function in the neuroendocrine control of pituitary hormone secretion, adenohypophyseal hormone gene expression and secretion, gonadal steroid hormone biosynthesis and secretion, ovulation, implantation, and parturition have been reported. The molecular clock, an autonomous feedback loop oscillator of interacting transcriptional regulators, dictates the timing and amplitude of gene expression in each tissue of the female hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. Although multiple targets of the molecular clock have been identified, many associated with critical physiological functions in the HPG axis, the full extent of clock-driven gene expression and physiology in this critical system remains unknown. Environmental circadian disruption (ECD), the disturbance of temporal relationships within and between internal clocks (brain and periphery), and external timing cues (eg, light, nutrients, social cues) due to rotating/night shift work or transmeridian travel have been linked to reproductive dysfunction and subfertility. Moreover, ECD resulting from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, environmental toxins, and/or irregular hormone levels during sexual development can also reduce fertility. Thus, perturbations that disturb clock function at the molecular, cellular or systemic level correlate with significant declines in female reproductive function. Here we briefly review the evidence for molecular clock function in each tissue of the female HPG axis (GnRH neuron, pituitary, uterus, oviduct, and ovary), describe the human epidemiological and animal data supporting the negative effects of ECD on fertility, and explore the potential for novel chronotherapeutics in women's health and fertility.

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