The C. elegans Male Exercises Directional Control during Mating through Cholinergic Regulation of Sex-Shared Command Interneurons

Amrita L. Sherlekar, Abbey Janssen, Meagan S. Siehr, Pamela K. Koo, Laura Caflisch, May Boggess, Robyn Lints

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Background:Mating behaviors in simple invertebrate model organisms represent tractable paradigms for understanding the neural bases of sex-specific behaviors, decision-making and sensorimotor integration. However, there are few examples where such neural circuits have been defined at high resolution or interrogated.Methodology/Principal Findings:Here we exploit the simplicity of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to define the neural circuits underlying the male's decision to initiate mating in response to contact with a mate. Mate contact is sensed by male-specific sensilla of the tail, the rays, which subsequently induce and guide a contact-based search of the hermaphrodite's surface for the vulva (the vulva search). Atypically, search locomotion has a backward directional bias so its implementation requires overcoming an intrinsic bias for forward movement, set by activity of the sex-shared locomotory system. Using optogenetics, cell-specific ablation- and mutant behavioral analyses, we show that the male makes this shift by manipulating the activity of command cells within this sex-shared locomotory system. The rays control the command interneurons through the male-specific, decision-making interneuron PVY and its auxiliary cell PVX. Unlike many sex-shared pathways, PVY/PVX regulate the command cells via cholinergic, rather than glutamatergic transmission, a feature that likely contributes to response specificity and coordinates directional movement with other cholinergic-dependent motor behaviors of the mating sequence. PVY/PVX preferentially activate the backward, and not forward, command cells because of a bias in synaptic inputs and the distribution of key cholinergic receptors (encoded by the genes acr-18, acr-16 and unc-29) in favor of the backward command cells.Conclusion/Significance:Our interrogation of male neural circuits reveals that a sex-specific response to the opposite sex is conferred by a male-specific pathway that renders subordinate, sex-shared motor programs responsive to mate cues. Circuit modifications of these types may make prominent contributions to natural variations in behavior that ultimately bring about speciation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere60597
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 5 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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