How can a binary switch within the pars tuberalis control seasonal timing of reproduction?

Shona H Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Life in seasonally changing environments is challenging. Biological systems have to not only respond directly to the environment, but also schedule life history events in anticipation of seasonal changes. The cellular and molecular basis of how these events are scheduled is unknown. Cellular decision-making processes in response to signals above certain thresholds regularly occur i.e. cellular fate determination, apoptosis and firing of action potentials. Binary switches, the result of cellular decision-making processes, are defined as a change in phenotype between two stable states. A recent study presents evidence of a binary switch operating in the pars tuberalis (PT) of the pituitary, seemingly timing seasonal reproduction in sheep. Though, how a binary switch would allow for anticipation of seasonal environmental changes, not just direct responsiveness, is unclear. The purpose of this review is to assess the evidence for a binary switching mechanism timing seasonal reproduction and to hypothesize how a binary switch would allow biological processes to be timed over weeks to years. I draw parallels with mechanisms used in development, cell fate determination and seasonal timing in plants. I propose that the adult PT is a plastic tissue, showing a seasonal cycle of cellular differentiation, and that the underlying processes are likely to be epigenetic. Therefore, considering the mechanisms behind adult cellular plasticity offers a framework to hypothesize how a long-term timer functions within the PT.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R13-R25
JournalJournal of Endocrinology
Issue number1
Early online date2 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


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