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Mechanisms underlying pacemaker activity in the sinus node remain controversial, with some ascribing a dominant role to timing events in the surface membrane ("membrane clock") and others to uptake and release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) ("calcium clock"). Here we discuss recent evidence on mechanisms underlying pacemaker activity with a particular emphasis on the many roles of calcium. There are particular areas of controversy concerning the contribution of calcium spark-like events and the importance of I(f) to spontaneous diastolic depolarisation, though it will be suggested that neither of these is essential for pacemaking. Sodium-calcium exchange (NCX) is most often considered in the context of mediating membrane depolarisation after spark-like events. We present evidence for a broader role of this electrogenic exchanger which need not always depend upon these spark-like events. Short (milliseconds or seconds) and long (minutes) term influences of calcium are discussed including direct regulation of ion channels and NCX, and control of the activity of calcium-dependent enzymes (including CaMKII, AC1, and AC8). The balance between the many contributory factors to pacemaker activity may well alter with experimental and clinical conditions, and potentially redundant mechanisms are desirable to ensure the regular spontaneous heart rate that is essential for life. This review presents evidence that calcium is central to the normal control of pacemaking across a range of temporal scales and seeks to broaden the accepted description of the "calcium clock" to cover these important influences.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Physiol

Publication Date





calcium clock, cardiac, cytosolic calcium, membrane clock, pacemaking, sino-atrial node