Environmental variables such as photoperiod, heat, stress, nutrition and other external factors have profound effects on quality and quantity of a dairy cow's milk. The way in which the environment interacts with genotype to impact milk production is unknown; however, evidence from our laboratory suggests that circadian clocks play a role. Daily and seasonal endocrine rhythms are coordinated in mammals by the master circadian clock in the hypothalamus. Peripheral clocks are distributed in every organ and coordinated by signals from the master clock. We and others have shown that there is a circadian clock in the mammary gland. Approximately 7% of the genes expressed during lactation had circadian patterns including core clock and metabolic genes. Amplitude changes occurred in the core mammary clock genes during the transition from pregnancy to lactation and were coordinated with changes in molecular clocks among multiple tissues. In vitro studies using a bovine mammary cell line showed that external stimulation synchronized mammary clocks, and expression of the core clock gene, BMAL1, was induced by lactogens. Female clock/clock mutant mice, which have disrupted circadian rhythms, have impaired mammary development and their offspring failed to thrive suggesting that the dam's milk production was not adequate enough to nourish their young. We envision that, in mammals, during the transition from pregnancy to lactation the master clock is modified by environmental and physiological cues that it receives, including photoperiod length. In turn, the master clock coordinates changes in endocrine milieu that signals peripheral tissues. In dairy cows, it is clear that changes in photoperiod during the dry period and/or during lactation influences milk production. We believe that the photoperiod effect on milk production is mediated, in part by the ‘setting’ of the master clock with light, which modifies peripheral circadian clocks including the mammary core clock and subsequently impacts milk yield and may impact milk composition.
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