BACKGROUND: Activation of the immune system affects the circadian clock. Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and Interleukin (IL)-1β inhibit the expression of clock genes including Period (Per) genes and the PAR-bZip clock-controlled gene D-site albumin promoter-binding protein (Dbp). These effects are due to cytokine-induced interference of E-box mediated transcription of clock genes. In the present study we have assessed the two E-box binding transcriptional regulators Twist1 and Twist2 for their role in cytokine induced inhibition of clock genes. METHODS: The expression of the clock genes Per1, Per2, Per3 and of Dbp was assessed in NIH-3T3 mouse fibroblasts and the mouse hippocampal neuronal cell line HT22. Cells were treated for 4h with TNF and IL-1β. The functional role of Twist1 and Twist2 was assessed by siRNAs against the Twist genes and by overexpression of TWIST proteins. In luciferase (luc) assays NIH-3T3 cells were transfected with reporter gene constructs, which contain a 3xPer1 E-box or a Dbp E-box. Quantitative chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) was performed using antibodies to TWIST1 and CLOCK, and the E-box consensus sequences of Dbp (CATGTG) and Per1 E-box (CACGTG). RESULTS: We report here that siRNA against Twist1 protects NIH-3T3 cells and HT22 cells from down-regulation of Period and Dbp by TNF and IL-1β. Overexpression of Twist1, but not of Twist2, mimics the effect of the cytokines. TNF down-regulates the activation of Per1-3xE-box-luc, the effect being prevented by siRNA against Twist1. Overexpression of Twist1, but not of Twist2, inhibits Per1-3xE-box-luc or Dbp-E-Box-luc activity. ChIP experiments show TWIST1 induction by TNF to compete with CLOCK binding to the E-box of Period genes and Dbp. CONCLUSION: Twist1 plays a pivotal role in the TNF mediated suppression of E-box dependent transactivation of Period genes and Dbp. Thereby Twist1 may provide a link between the immune system and the circadian timing system.