The Caenorhabditis elegans male exhibits a stereotypic behavioral pattern when attempting to mate. This behavior has been divided into the following steps: response, backing, turning, vulva location, spicule insertion, and sperm transfer. We and others have begun in-depth analyses of all these steps in order to understand how complex behaviors are generated. Here we extend our understanding of the sperm-transfer step of male mating behavior.
Based on observation of wild-type males and on genetic analysis, we have divided the sperm-transfer step of mating behavior into four sub-steps: initiation, release, continued transfer, and cessation. To begin to understand how these sub-steps of sperm transfer are regulated, we screened for ethylmethanesulfonate (EMS)-induced mutations that cause males to transfer sperm aberrantly. We isolated an allele of unc-18, a previously reported member of the Sec1/Munc-18 (SM) family of proteins that is necessary for regulated exocytosis in C. elegans motor neurons. Our allele, sy671, is defective in two distinct sub-steps of sperm transfer: initiation and continued transfer. By a series of transgenic site-of-action experiments, we found that motor neurons in the ventral nerve cord require UNC-18 for the initiation of sperm transfer, and that UNC-18 acts downstream or in parallel to the SPV sensory neurons in this process. In addition to this neuronal requirement, we found that non-neuronal expression of UNC-18, in the male gonad, is necessary for the continuation of sperm transfer.
Our division of sperm-transfer behavior into sub-steps has provided a framework for the further detailed analysis of sperm transfer and its integration with other aspects of mating behavior. By determining the site of action of UNC-18 in sperm-transfer behavior, and its relation to the SPV sensory neurons, we have further defined the cells and tissues involved in the generation of this behavior. We have shown both a neuronal and non-neuronal requirement for UNC-18 in distinct sub-steps of sperm-transfer behavior. The definition of circuit components is a crucial first step toward understanding how genes specify the neural circuit and hence the behavior.