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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Coordination of opposing sex-specific and core muscle groups regulates male tail posture during Caenorhabditis elegans male mating behavior

Allyson J Whittaker and Paul W Sternberg*

Author Affiliations

Division of Biology/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:33  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-33

Published: 22 June 2009



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.