Do circadian timekeepers enhance the fitness of organisms growing under natural conditions?

 Despite the expectation that circadian clocks are usually assumed to enhance the fitness of organisms by improving their ability to adapt to daily cycles in environmental factors, there have been few rigorous tests of that proposition in any organism. Cyanobacteria are one of the few organisms in which such a test has been performed. The adaptive fitness test was done by mixing cyanobacterial strains that express different circadian properties (i.e., rhythmicity vs. arhythmicity, different periods, etc.) and growing them in competition under different environmental conditions. The idea was to determine if having an appropriately functional clock system enhances fitness under competitive conditions. The result was that strains with a functioning biological clock out-compete arhythmic strains in environments that have a rhythmic light/dark cycle (e.g., 12 hours of light alternating with 12 hours of darkness), whereas in "constant" environments (e.g., constant illumination) rhythmic and arhythmic strains grow at comparable rates. Among rhythmic strains with different periods, the strains whose endogenous period most closely matches the period of the environmental cycle is able to out-compete strains whose period does not match that of the environment. Therefore, in rhythmic environments, the fitness of cyanobacteria is improved when the clock is operational and when its circadian period is similar to the period of the environmental cycle. These were among the first rigorous demonstrations in any organism of a fitness advantage conferred by a circadian system.

When researchers believed that prokaryotes were too "simple" to have circadian timekeepers, it had seemed reasonable that evolutionary selection for circadian organization would occur only if the generation time of the cells were as long or longer than a day. The data from cyanobacteria, however, suggest that the benefits of having a daily clock can potentially accrue to all organisms, even if they divide more rapidly than once a day.