Using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reactions the transcription of eight novel candidate nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) alpha subunit genes has been demonstrated in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Together with five other alpha subunit genes described elsewhere by ourselves (unc-38) and other workers (deg-3, acr-4, Ce21 and acr-6), this is now the largest known family of nAChR alpha subunit genes in a single species. By homology we have identified four groups of alpha subunits: DEG-3-like; ACR-16[Ce21]-like; UNC-38-like and ACR-8-like. Five C. elegans nAChR alpha subunits contain a modification in loop C of the ACh binding site in which the normally conserved Tyr-x-Cys-Cys, is replaced by a distinct motif (Tyr-x-x-Cys-Cys). Variation is also found in the channel lining M2 regions, including the replacement in four subunits of the highly conserved leucine at the 9' position by valine and most notably, the replacement in all ACR-8-like subunits of the highly conserved glutamic acid at the -1' position by histidine. Restrained molecular dynamics simulations have been used to generate homo-pentameric M2 helix bundle models for alpha subunits and possible functional implications examined. The calculated electrostatic potential energy profile for the M2 region of ACR-8 differs strikingly from that of ACR-16[Ce21] largely due to the presence of histidine at the -1' position, suggesting a possible perturbation of nAChR channel action permeability in the presence of this subunit type.