Artificial dirt: microfluidic substrates for nematode neurobiology and behavior

Lockery SR, Lawton KJ, Doll JC, Faumont S, Coulthard SM, Thiele TR, Chronis N, McCormick KE, Goodman MB, Pruitt BL

J. Neurophysiol. 2008 Jun;99(6):3136-43

PMID: 18337372


With a nervous system of only 302 neurons, the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a powerful experimental organism for neurobiology. However, the laboratory substrate commonly used in C. elegans research, a planar agarose surface, fails to reflect the complexity of this organism’s natural environment, complicates stimulus delivery, and is incompatible with high-resolution optophysiology experiments. Here we present a new class of microfluidic devices for C. elegans neurobiology and behavior: agarose-free, micron-scale chambers and channels that allow the animals to crawl as they would on agarose. One such device mimics a moist soil matrix and facilitates rapid delivery of fluid-borne stimuli. A second device consists of sinusoidal channels that can be used to regulate the waveform and trajectory of crawling worms. Both devices are thin and transparent, rendering them compatible with high-resolution microscope objectives for neuronal imaging and optical recording. Together, the new devices are likely to accelerate studies of the neuronal basis of behavior in C. elegans.

Functional asymmetry in Caenorhabditis elegans taste neurons and its computational role in chemotaxis

Suzuki H, Thiele TR, Faumont S, Ezcurra M, Lockery SR, Schafer WR

Nature 2008 Jul;454(7200):114-7

PMID: 18596810


Chemotaxis in Caenorhabditis elegans, like chemotaxis in bacteria, involves a random walk biased by the time derivative of attractant concentration, but how the derivative is computed is unknown. Laser ablations have shown that the strongest deficits in chemotaxis to salts are obtained when the ASE chemosensory neurons (ASEL and ASER) are ablated, indicating that this pair has a dominant role. Although these neurons are left-right homologues anatomically, they exhibit marked asymmetries in gene expression and ion preference. Here, using optical recordings of calcium concentration in ASE neurons in intact animals, we demonstrate an additional asymmetry: ASEL is an ON-cell, stimulated by increases in NaCl concentration, whereas ASER is an OFF-cell, stimulated by decreases in NaCl concentration. Both responses are reliable yet transient, indicating that ASE neurons report changes in concentration rather than absolute levels. Recordings from synaptic and sensory transduction mutants show that the ON-OFF asymmetry is the result of intrinsic differences between ASE neurons. Unilateral activation experiments indicate that the asymmetry extends to the level of behavioural output: ASEL lengthens bouts of forward locomotion (runs) whereas ASER promotes direction changes (turns). Notably, the input and output asymmetries of ASE neurons are precisely those of a simple yet novel neuronal motif for computing the time derivative of chemosensory information, which is the fundamental computation of C. elegans chemotaxis. Evidence for ON and OFF cells in other chemosensory networks suggests that this motif may be common in animals that navigate by taste and smell.

The neural network for chemotaxis to tastants in Caenorhabditis elegans is specialized for temporal differentiation

Thiele TR, Faumont S, Lockery SR

J. Neurosci. 2009 Sep;29(38):11904-11

PMID: 19776276


Chemotaxis in Caenorhabditis elegans depends critically on the rate of change of attractant concentration computed as the worm moves through its environment. This computation depends, in turn, on the neuron class ASE, a left-right pair of pair of chemosensory neurons that is functionally asymmetric such that the left neuron is an on-cell, whereas the right neuron is an off-cell. To determine whether this coding strategy is a general feature of chemosensation in C. elegans, we imaged calcium responses in all chemosensory neurons known or in a position to contribute to chemotaxis to tastants in this organism. This survey revealed one new class of on-cells (ADF) and one new class of off-cells (ASH). Thus, the ASE class is unique in having both an on-cell and an off-cell. We also found that the newly characterized on-cells and off-cells promote runs and turns, respectively, mirroring the pattern reported previously for ASEL and ASER. Our results suggest that the C. elegans chemotaxis network is specialized for the temporal differentiation of chemosensory inputs, as required for chemotaxis.