Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Behavioral response of Caenorhabditis elegans to localized thermal stimuli

Aylia Mohammadi12, Jarlath Byrne Rodgers23, Ippei Kotera2 and William S Ryu12*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S1A7, Canada

2 Donnelly Centre, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S3E1, Canada

3 Department of Cell and Systems Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3G5, Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:66  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-66

Published: 3 July 2013



Nociception evokes a rapid withdrawal behavior designed to protect the animal from potential danger. C. elegans performs a reflexive reversal or forward locomotory response when presented with noxious stimuli at the head or tail, respectively. Here, we have developed an assay with precise spatial and temporal control of an infrared laser stimulus that targets one-fifth of the worm’s body and quantifies multiple aspects of the worm’s escape response.


When stimulated at the head, we found that the escape response can be elicited by changes in temperature as small as a fraction of a degree Celsius, and that aspects of the escape behavior such as the response latency and the escape direction change advantageously as the amplitude of the noxious stimulus increases. We have mapped the behavioral receptive field of thermal nociception along the entire body of the worm, and show a midbody avoidance behavior distinct from the head and tail responses. At the midbody, the worm is sensitive to a change in the stimulus location as small as 80 μm. This midbody response is probabilistic, producing either a backward, forward or pause state after the stimulus. The distribution of these states shifts from reverse-biased to forward-biased as the location of the stimulus moves from the middle towards the anterior or posterior of the worm, respectively. We identified PVD as the thermal nociceptor for the midbody response using calcium imaging, genetic ablation and laser ablation. Analyses of mutants suggest the possibility that TRPV channels and glutamate are involved in facilitating the midbody noxious response.


Through high resolution quantitative behavioral analysis, we have comprehensively characterized the C. elegans escape response to noxious thermal stimuli applied along its body, and found a novel midbody response. We further identified the nociceptor PVD as required to sense noxious heat at the midbody and can spatially differentiate localized thermal stimuli.

Nociception; Thermal sensation; Neuroethology