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The Caenorhabditis elegans interneuron ALA is (also) a high-threshold mechanosensor

Jarred Sanders1, Stanislav Nagy2, Graham Fetterman2, Charles Wright2, Millet Treinin4 and David Biron23*

Author Affiliations

1 Committee on Genetics, Genomics, and Systems Biology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

2 The Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

3 Department of Physics and the James Franck Institute, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

4 Department of Medical Neurobiology, Institute for Medical Research – Israel-Canada, Hebrew University – Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem 91120, Israel

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:156  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-156

Published: 17 December 2013



To survive dynamic environments, it is essential for all animals to appropriately modulate their behavior in response to various stimulus intensities. For instance, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans suppresses the rate of egg-laying in response to intense mechanical stimuli, in a manner dependent on the mechanosensory neurons FLP and PVD. We have found that the unilaterally placed single interneuron ALA acted as a high-threshold mechanosensor, and that it was required for this protective behavioral response.


ALA was required for the inhibition of egg-laying in response to a strong (picking-like) mechanical stimulus, characteristic of routine handling of the animals. Moreover, ALA did not respond physiologically to less intense touch stimuli, but exhibited distinct physiological responses to anterior and posterior picking-like touch, suggesting that it could distinguish between spatially separated stimuli. These responses required neither neurotransmitter nor neuropeptide release from potential upstream neurons. In contrast, the long, bilaterally symmetric processes of ALA itself were required for producing its physiological responses; when they were severed, responses to stimuli administered between the cut and the cell body were unaffected, while responses to stimuli administered posterior to the cut were abolished.


C. elegans neurons are typically classified into three major groups: sensory neurons with specialized sensory dendrites, interneurons, and motoneurons with neuromuscular junctions. Our findings suggest that ALA can autonomously sense intense touch and is thus a dual-function neuron, i.e., an interneuron as well as a novel high-threshold mechanosensor.

Mechanosensation; Physiology; Neuroethology