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.
eNeuro. 2017 Apr 21;4(2).