Initiation of male sperm-transfer behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans requires input from the ventral nerve cord
Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA
BMC Biology 2006, 4:26 doi:10.1186/1741-7007-4-26Published: 15 August 2006
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.