Environmental osmolarity presents a common type of sensory stimulus to animals. While behavioral responses to osmotic changes are important for maintaining a stable intracellular osmolarity, the underlying mechanisms are not fully understood. In the natural habitat of Caenorhabditis elegans, changes in environmental osmolarity are commonplace. It is known that the nematode acutely avoids shocks of extremely high osmolarity. Here, we show that C. elegans also generates gradually increased aversion of mild upshifts in environmental osmolarity. Different from an acute avoidance of osmotic shocks that depends on the function of a transient receptor potential vanilloid channel, the slow aversion to osmotic upshifts requires the cGMP-gated sensory channel subunit TAX-2. TAX-2 acts in several sensory neurons that are exposed to body fluid to generate the aversive response through a motor network that underlies navigation. Osmotic upshifts activate the body cavity sensory neuron URX, which is known to induce aversion upon activation. Together, our results characterize the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying a novel sensorimotor response to osmotic stimuli and reveal that C. elegans engages different behaviors and the underlying mechanisms to regulate responses to extracellular osmolarity.
Multisensory integration is a neural process by which signals from two or more distinct sensory channels are simultaneously processed to form a more coherent representation of the environment. Multisensory integration, especially when combined with a survey of internal states, provides selective advantages for animals navigating complex environments. Despite appreciation of the importance of multisensory integration in behavior, the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms remain poorly understood. Recent work looking at how Caenorhabditis elegans makes multisensory decisions has yielded mechanistic insights into how a relatively simple and well-defined nervous system employs circuit motifs of defined features, synaptic signals and extrasynaptic neurotransmission, as well as neuromodulators in processing and integrating multiple sensory inputs to generate flexible and adaptive behavioral outputs.
As a common neurotransmitter in the nervous system, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) modulates locomotory patterns in both vertebrates and invertebrates. However, the signaling mechanisms underlying the behavioral effects of GABAergic modulation are not completely understood. Here, we demonstrate that a GABAergic signal in C. elegans modulates the amplitude of undulatory head bending through extrasynaptic neurotransmission and conserved metabotropic receptors. We show that the GABAergic RME head motor neurons generate undulatory activity patterns that correlate with head bending and the activity of RME causally links with head bending amplitude. The undulatory activity of RME is regulated by a pair of cholinergic head motor neurons SMD, which facilitate head bending, and inhibits SMD to limit head bending. The extrasynaptic neurotransmission between SMD and RME provides a gain control system to set head bending amplitude to a value correlated with optimal efficiency of forward movement.
The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans navigates toward a preferred temperature setpoint (Ts) determined by long-term temperature exposure. During thermotaxis, the worm migrates down temperature gradients at temperatures above Ts (negative thermotaxis) and performs isothermal tracking near Ts. Under some conditions, the worm migrates up temperature gradients below Ts (positive thermotaxis). Here, we analyze positive and negative thermotaxis toward Ts to study the role of specific neurons that have been proposed to be involved in thermotaxis using genetic ablation, behavioral tracking, and calcium imaging. We find differences in the strategies for positive and negative thermotaxis. Negative thermotaxis is achieved through biasing the frequency of reorientation maneuvers (turns and reversal turns) and biasing the direction of reorientation maneuvers toward colder temperatures. Positive thermotaxis, in contrast, biases only the direction of reorientation maneuvers toward warmer temperatures. We find that the AFD thermosensory neuron drives both positive and negative thermotaxis. The AIY interneuron, which is postsynaptic to AFD, may mediate the switch from negative to positive thermotaxis below Ts. We propose that multiple thermotactic behaviors, each defined by a distinct set of sensorimotor transformations, emanate from the AFD thermosensory neurons. AFD learns and stores the memory of preferred temperatures, detects temperature gradients, and drives the appropriate thermotactic behavior in each temperature regime by the flexible use of downstream circuits.
Food is critical for survival. Many animals, including the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, use sensorimotor systems to detect and locate preferred food sources. However, the signaling mechanisms underlying food-choice behaviors are poorly understood. Here, we characterize the molecular signaling that regulates recognition and preference between different food odors in C. elegans. We show that the major olfactory sensory neurons, AWB and AWC, play essential roles in this behavior. A canonical Galpha-protein, together with guanylate cyclases and cGMP-gated channels, is needed for the recognition of food odors. The food-odor-evoked signal is transmitted via glutamatergic neurotransmission from AWC and through AMPA and kainate-like glutamate receptor subunits. In contrast, peptidergic signaling is required to generate preference between different food odors while being dispensable for the recognition of the odors. We show that this regulation is achieved by the neuropeptide NLP-9 produced in AWB, which acts with its putative receptor NPR-18, and by the neuropeptide NLP-1 produced in AWC. In addition, another set of sensory neurons inhibits food-odor preference. These mechanistic logics, together with a previously mapped neural circuit underlying food-odor preference, provide a functional network linking sensory response, transduction, and downstream receptors to process complex olfactory information and generate the appropriate behavioral decision essential for survival.
Brain circuits endow behavioral flexibility. Here, we study circuits encoding flexible chemotaxis in C. elegans, where the animal navigates up or down NaCl gradients (positive or negative chemotaxis) to reach the salt concentration of previous growth (the set point). The ASER sensory neuron mediates positive and negative chemotaxis by regulating the frequency and direction of reorientation movements in response to salt gradients. Both salt gradients and set point memory are encoded in ASER temporal activity patterns. Distinct temporal activity patterns in interneurons immediately downstream of ASER encode chemotactic movement decisions. Different interneuron combinations regulate positive versus negative chemotaxis. We conclude that sensorimotor pathways are segregated immediately after the primary sensory neuron in the chemotaxis circuit, and sensory representation is rapidly transformed to motor representation at the first interneuron layer. Our study reveals compact encoding of perception, memory, and locomotion in an experience-dependent navigational behavior in C. elegans.
Learning is an essential function of the nervous system. However, our understanding of molecular underpinnings of learning remains incomplete. Here, we characterize a conserved protein EOL-1 that regulates olfactory learning in Caenorhabditis elegans. A recessive allele of eol-1 (enhanced olfactory learning) learns better to adjust its olfactory preference for bacteria foods and eol-1 acts in the URX sensory neurons to regulate learning. The mammalian homolog of EOL-1, Dom3Z, which regulates quality control of pre-mRNAs, can substitute the function of EOL-1 in learning regulation, demonstrating functional conservation between these homologs. Mutating the residues of Dom3Z that are critical for its enzymatic activity, and the equivalent residues in EOL-1, abolishes the function of these proteins in learning. Together, our results provide insights into the function of EOL-1/Dom3Z and suggest that its activity in pre-mRNA quality control is involved in neural plasticity.
Insulin-like peptides (ILPs) play highly conserved roles in development and physiology. Most animal genomes encode multiple ILPs. Here we identify mechanisms for how the forty Caenorhabditis elegans ILPs coordinate diverse processes, including development, reproduction, longevity and several specific stress responses. Our systematic studies identify an ILP-based combinatorial code for these phenotypes characterized by substantial functional specificity and diversity rather than global redundancy. Notably, we show that ILPs regulate each other transcriptionally, uncovering an ILP-to-ILP regulatory network that underlies the combinatorial phenotypic coding by the ILP family. Extensive analyses of genetic interactions among ILPs reveal how their signals are integrated. A combined analysis of these functional and regulatory ILP interactions identifies local genetic circuits that act in parallel and interact by crosstalk, feedback and compensation. This organization provides emergent mechanisms for phenotypic specificity and graded regulation for the combinatorial phenotypic coding we observe. Our findings also provide insights into how large hormonal networks regulate diverse traits.
An animal's survival strongly depends on a nervous system that can rapidly process and integrate the changing quality of its environment and promote the most appropriate physiological responses. This is amply demonstrated in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, where its sensory system has been shown to impact multiple physiological traits that range from behavior and developmental plasticity to longevity. Because of the accessibility of its nervous system and the number of tools available to study and manipulate its neural circuitry, C. elegans has thus become an important model organism in dissecting the mechanisms through which the nervous system promotes survival. Here we review our current understanding of how the C. elegans sensory system affects diverse physiological traits, whose coordination would be essential for survival under fluctuating environments. The knowledge we derive from the C. elegans studies should provide testable hypotheses in discovering similar mechanisms in higher animals.
Recently, we have reported novel and complex calcium dynamics in the RIA interneuron, which has been implicated in several navigational behaviors in C. elegans. Here, we review our findings on the compartmentalized and global calcium events in RIA and propose functional consequence as well as potential regulatory mechanisms of these intriguing calcium signals.
Dynamic serotonin biosynthesis is important for serotonin function; however, the mechanisms that underlie experience-dependent transcriptional regulation of the rate-limiting serotonin biosynthetic enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH) are poorly understood. Here, we characterize the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate increased transcription of Caenorhabditis elegans tph-1 in a pair of serotonergic neurons ADF during an aversive experience with pathogenic bacteria, a common environmental peril for worms. Training with pathogenic bacteria induces a learned aversion to the smell of the pathogen, a behavioral plasticity that depends on the serotonin signal from ADF neurons. We demonstrate that pathogen training increases ADF neuronal activity. While activating ADF increases tph-1 transcription, inhibiting ADF activity abolishes the training effect on tph-1, demonstrating the dependence of tph-1 transcriptional regulation on ADF neural activity. At the molecular level, the C. elegans homolog of CaMKII, UNC-43, functions cell-autonomously in ADF neurons to generate training-dependent enhancement in neuronal activity and tph-1 transcription, and this cell-autonomous function of UNC-43 is required for learning. Furthermore, selective expression of an activated form of UNC-43 in ADF neurons is sufficient to increase ADF activity and tph-1 transcription, mimicking the training effect. Upstream of ADF, the Gqalpha protein EGL-30 facilitates training-dependent induction of tph-1 by functional regulation of olfactory sensory neurons, which underscores the importance of sensory experience. Together, our work elucidates the molecular and cellular mechanisms whereby experience modulates tph-1 transcription.
The insulin/insulin-like peptides (ILPs) regulate key events in physiology, including neural plasticity. However, the cellular and circuit mechanisms whereby ILPs regulate learning remain largely unknown. Here, we characterize two ILPs that play antagonistic roles in aversive olfactory learning of C. elegans. We show that the ILP ins-6 acts from ASI sensory neurons to enable learning by repressing the transcription of another ILP, ins-7, specifically in URX neurons. A high level of INS-7 from URX disrupts learning by antagonizing the insulin receptor-like homolog DAF-2 in the postsynaptic neurons RIA, which play an essential role in the neural circuit underlying olfactory learning. We also show that increasing URX-generated INS-7 and loss of INS-6, both of which abolish learning, alter RIA neuronal property. Together, our results reveal an "ILP-to-ILP" pathway that links environment-sensing neurons, ASI and URX, to the key neuron, RIA, of a network that underlies olfactory plasticity and modulates its activity.
Reproductive behaviors have manifold consequences on evolutionary processes. Here, we explore mechanisms underlying female reproductive choice in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a species in which females have evolved the ability to produce their own self-fertilizing sperm, thereby allowing these "hermaphrodites" the strategic choice to self-reproduce or outcross with males. We report that hermaphrodites of the wild-type laboratory reference strain N2 favor self-reproduction, whereas a wild isolate CB4856 (HW) favors outcrossing. To characterize underlying neural mechanisms, we show that N2 hermaphrodites deficient in mechanosensation or chemosensation (e.g., mec-3 and osm-6 mutants) exhibit high mating frequency, implicating hermaphrodite perception of males as a requirement for low mating frequency. Within chemosensory networks, we find opposing roles for different sets of neurons that express the cyclic GMP-gated nucleotide channel, suggesting both positive and negative sensory-mediated regulation of hermaphrodite mating frequency. We also show that the ability to self-reproduce negatively regulates hermaphrodite mating. To map genetic variation, we created recombinant inbred lines and identified two QTL that explain a large portion of N2 x HW variation in hermaphrodite mating frequency. Intriguingly, we further show that approximately 40 wild isolates representing C. elegans global diversity exhibit extensive and continuous variation in hermaphrodite reproductive outcome. Together, our findings demonstrate that C. elegans hermaphrodites actively regulate the choice between selfing and crossing, highlight the existence of natural variation in hermaphrodite choice, and lay the groundwork for molecular dissection of this evolutionarily important trait.
The confinement of neuronal activity to specific subcellular regions is a mechanism for expanding the computational properties of neurons. Although the circuit organization underlying compartmentalized activity has been studied in several systems, its cellular basis is still unknown. Here we characterize compartmentalized activity in Caenorhabditis elegans RIA interneurons, which have multiple reciprocal connections to head motor neurons and receive input from sensory pathways. We show that RIA spatially encodes head movement on a subcellular scale through axonal compartmentalization. This subcellular axonal activity is dependent on acetylcholine release from head motor neurons and is simultaneously present and additive with glutamate-dependent globally synchronized activity evoked by sensory inputs. Postsynaptically, the muscarinic acetylcholine receptor GAR-3 acts in RIA to compartmentalize axonal activity through the mobilization of intracellular calcium stores. The compartmentalized activity functions independently of the synchronized activity to modulate locomotory behaviour.
The TGF-beta superfamily is conserved throughout metazoan, and its members play essential roles in development and disease. TGF-beta has also been implicated in adult neural plasticity. However, the underlying mechanisms are not well understood. Here we report that DBL-1, a Caenorhabditis elegans TGF-beta homolog known to control body morphology and immunity, is essential for aversive olfactory learning of potentially harmful bacteria food. We show that DBL-1 generated by the AVA command interneurons, which are critical for sensorimotor responses, regulates aversive olfactory learning, and that the activity of the type I TGF-beta receptor SMA-6 in the hypodermis is needed during adulthood to generate olfactory plasticity. These spatial and temporal mechanisms are critical for the DBL-1 signaling to achieve its diverse functions in development and adult neural plasticity. Interestingly, aversive training decreases AVA calcium response, leading to an increase in the DBL-1 signal secreted from AVA, revealing an experience-dependent change that can underlie the role of TGF-beta signaling in mediating plasticity.
An insulin-like signaling pathway mediates the environmental influence on the switch between the C. elegans developmental programs of reproductive growth versus dauer arrest. However, the specific role of endogenous insulin-like peptide (ILP) ligands in mediating the switch between these programs remains unknown. C. elegans has 40 putative insulin-like genes, many of which are expressed in sensory neurons and interneurons, raising the intriguing possibility that ILPs encode different environmental information to regulate the entry into, and exit from, dauer arrest. These two developmental switches can have different regulatory requirements: here we show that the relative importance of three different ILPs varies between dauer entry and exit. Not only do we find that one ILP, ins-1, ensures dauer arrest under harsh environments and that two other ILPs, daf-28 and ins-6, ensure reproductive growth under good conditions, we also show that daf-28 and ins-6 have non-redundant functions in regulating these developmental switches. Notably, daf-28 plays a more primary role in inhibiting dauer entry, whereas ins-6 has a more significant role in promoting dauer exit. Moreover, the switch into dauer arrest surprisingly shifts ins-6 transcriptional expression from a set of dauer-inhibiting sensory neurons to a different set of neurons, where it promotes dauer exit. Together, our data suggest that specific ILPs generate precise responses to dauer-inducing cues, such as pheromones and low food levels, to control development through stimulus-regulated expression in different neurons.
Many animals use their olfactory systems to learn to avoid dangers, but how neural circuits encode naive and learned olfactory preferences, and switch between those preferences, is poorly understood. Here, we map an olfactory network, from sensory input to motor output, which regulates the learned olfactory aversion of Caenorhabditis elegans for the smell of pathogenic bacteria. Naive animals prefer smells of pathogens but animals trained with pathogens lose this attraction. We find that two different neural circuits subserve these preferences, with one required for the naive preference and the other specifically for the learned preference. Calcium imaging and behavioral analysis reveal that the naive preference reflects the direct transduction of the activity of olfactory sensory neurons into motor response, whereas the learned preference involves modulations to signal transduction to downstream neurons to alter motor response. Thus, two different neural circuits regulate a behavioral switch between naive and learned olfactory preferences.
Communication between the nervous and immune systems is fundamental to animal physiology. However, the complicated anatomy and signaling pathways of these systems in mammals challenge the understanding of the neural-immune interaction at molecular, cellular, and organismic levels. Caenorhabditis elegans has been valuable in this regard because of its simple, well-defined nervous system and accessibility to genetic, molecular, and behavioral analyses. Recent studies in C. elegans have identified neuronal pathways that regulate signaling cascades in innate immune responses, including a neuroendocrine network, a TGF-beta pathway and dopaminergic neurotransmission, illuminating how specific neuronal signaling molecules and circuits control integrative immune responses.