The sleep-promoting effect of the pineal hormone melatonin in humans is known for decades. However, the mechanisms of this phenomenon remain obscure, mainly due to lack of a simple, genetically tractable, animal model. We now report that melatonin promotes sleep-like state in a diurnal lower vertebrate, zebrafish (Danio rerio), and this effect is mediated through activation of specific melatonin membrane receptors. Furthermore, our data show that the sleep-like state in zebrafish has fundamental similarities with sleep in mammals,
including characteristic postures, elevated arousal threshold to sensory stimulation and a compensatory rest rebound following rest deprivation, and can be induced by conventional hypnotics, diazepam and sodium pentobarbital. Collectively, these data indicate that melatonin is evolutionary conserved sleep-promoting agent in diurnal species and suggest that zebrafish provide an efficient animal model for studying the molecular mechanisms of sleep regulation and for screening new types of hypnotic medications.