The ability to discriminate between different chemical stimuli is crucial for food detection, spatial orientation and other adaptive behaviours in animals. In the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, spatial orientation in gradients of soluble chemoattractants (chemotaxis) is controlled mainly by a single pair of chemosensory neurons. These two neurons, ASEL and ASER, are left-right homologues in terms of the disposition of their somata and processes, morphology of specialized sensory endings, synaptic partners and expression profile of many genes. However, recent gene-expression studies have revealed unexpected asymmetries between ASEL and ASER. ASEL expresses the putative receptor guanylyl cyclase genes gcy-6 and gcy-7, whereas ASER expresses gcy-5 (ref. 4). In addition, only ASEL expresses the homeobox gene lim-6, an orthologue of the human LMX1 subfamily of homeobox genes. Here we show, using laser ablation of neurons and whole-cell patch-clamp electrophysiology, that the asymmetries between ASEL and ASER extend to the functional level. ASEL is primarily sensitive to sodium, whereas ASER is primarily sensitive to chloride and potassium. Furthermore, we find that lim-6 is required for this functional asymmetry and for the ability to distinguish sodium from chloride. Thus, a homeobox gene increases the representational capacity of the nervous system by establishing asymmetric functions in a bilaterally symmetrical neuron pair.