An intricate neural circuit composed of multiple classes of clock neurons controls circadian locomotor rhythms in Drosophila. Evidence indicates that the small ventral lateral neurons (s-LNvs, M cells) are the dominant pacemaker neurons that synchronize the clocks throughout the circuit and drive free-running locomotor rhythms. Little is known, however, about the molecular underpinning of this unique function of the s-LNvs. Here, we show that the nuclear receptor gene unfulfilled (unf; DHR51) is required for the function of the s-LNvs. UNFULFILLED (UNF) is rhythmically expressed in the s-LNvs, and unf mutant flies are behaviorally arrhythmic. Knockdown of unf in developing LNvs irreversibly destroys the ability of adult s-LNvs to generate free-running rhythms, whereas depletion of UNF from adult LNvs dampens the rhythms of the s-LNvs only in constant darkness. These temporally controlled LNv-targeted unf knockdowns desynchronize circuit-wide molecular rhythms and disrupt behavioral rhythms. Therefore, UNF is a prerequisite for free-running clocks in the s-LNvs and for the function of the entire circadian circuit.
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