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1.  Coordination of opposing sex-specific and core muscle groups regulates male tail posture during Caenorhabditis elegans male mating behavior 
BMC Biology  2009;7:33.
To survive and reproduce, animals must be able to modify their motor behavior in response to changes in the environment. We studied a complex behavior of Caenorhabditis elegans, male mating behavior, which provided a model for understanding motor behaviors at the genetic, molecular as well as circuit level. C. elegans male mating behavior consists of a series of six sub-steps: response to contact, backing, turning, vulva location, spicule insertion, and sperm transfer. The male tail contains most of the sensory structures required for mating, in addition to the copulatory structures, and thus to carry out the steps of mating behavior, the male must keep his tail in contact with the hermaphrodite. However, because the hermaphrodite does not play an active role in mating and continues moving, the male must modify his tail posture to maintain contact. We provide a better understanding of the molecular and neuro-muscular pathways that regulate male tail posture during mating.
Genetic and laser ablation analysis, in conjunction with behavioral assays were used to determine neurotransmitters, receptors, neurons and muscles required for the regulation of male tail posture. We showed that proper male tail posture is maintained by the coordinated activity of opposing muscle groups that curl the tail ventrally and dorsally. Specifically, acetylcholine regulates both ventral and dorsal curling of the male tail, partially through anthelmintic levamisole-sensitive, nicotinic receptor subunits. Male-specific muscles are required for acetylcholine-driven ventral curling of the male tail but dorsal curling requires the dorsal body wall muscles shared by males and hermaphrodites. Gamma-aminobutyric acid activity is required for both dorsal and ventral acetylcholine-induced curling of the male tail and an inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acid receptor, UNC-49, prevents over-curling of the male tail during mating, suggesting that cross-inhibition of muscle groups helps maintain proper tail posture.
Our results demonstrated that coordination of opposing sex-specific and core muscle groups, through the activity of multiple neurotransmitters, is required for regulation of male tail posture during mating. We have provided a simple model for regulation of male tail posture that provides a foundation for studies of how genes, molecular pathways, and neural circuits contribute to sensory regulation of this motor behavior.
PMCID: PMC2715377  PMID: 19545405
2.  Evolution of a polymodal sensory response network 
BMC Biology  2008;6:52.
Avoidance of noxious stimuli is essential for the survival of an animal in its natural habitat. Some avoidance responses require polymodal sensory neurons, which sense a range of diverse stimuli, whereas other stimuli require a unimodal sensory neuron, which senses a single stimulus. Polymodality might have evolved to help animals quickly detect and respond to diverse noxious stimuli. Nematodes inhabit diverse habitats and most nematode nervous systems are composed of a small number of neurons, despite a wide assortment in nematode sizes. Given this observation, we speculated that cellular contribution to stereotyped avoidance behaviors would also be conserved between nematode species. The ASH neuron mediates avoidance of three classes of noxious stimuli in Caenorhabditis elegans. Two species of parasitic nematodes also utilize the ASH neuron to avoid certain stimuli. We wanted to extend our knowledge of avoidance behaviors by comparing multiple stimuli in a set of free-living nematode species.
We used comparative behavioral analysis and laser microsurgery to examine three avoidance behaviors in six diverse species of free-living nematodes. We found that all species tested exhibit avoidance of chemo-, mechano- and osmosensory stimuli. In C. elegans, the bilaterally symmetric polymodal ASH neurons detect all three classes of repellant. We identified the putative ASH neurons in different nematode species by their anatomical positions and showed that in all six species ablation of the ASH neurons resulted in an inability to avoid noxious stimuli. However, in the nematode Pristionchus pacificus, the ADL neuron in addition to the ASH neuron contributed to osmosensation. In the species Caenorhabditis sp. 3, only the ASH neuron was required to mediate nose touch avoidance instead of three neurons in C. elegans. These data suggest that different species can increase or decrease the contribution of additional, non-ASH sensory neurons mediating osmosensation and mechanosensation.
The overall conservation of ASH mediated polymodal nociception suggests that it is an ancestral evolutionarily stable feature of sensation. However, the finding that contribution from non-ASH sensory neurons mediates polymodal nociception in some nematode species suggests that even in conserved sensory behaviors, the cellular response network is dynamic over evolutionary time, perhaps shaped by adaptation of each species to its environment.
PMCID: PMC2636771  PMID: 19077305
3.  Initiation of male sperm-transfer behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans requires input from the ventral nerve cord 
BMC Biology  2006;4:26.
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.
PMCID: PMC1564418  PMID: 16911797

Results 1-3 (3)