We investigated a non-mammalian host model system for fitness in genetic screening for virulence-attenuating mutations in the potential biowarfare agents Burkholderia pseudomallei and Burkholderia mallei. We determined that B. pseudomallei is able to cause 'disease-like' symptoms and kill the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Analysis of killing in the surrogate disease model with B. pseudomallei mutants indicated that killing did not require lipopolysaccharide (LPS) O-antigen, aminoglycoside/macrolide efflux pumping, type II pathway-secreted exoenzymes or motility. Burkholderia thailandensis and some strains of Burkholderia cepacia also killed nematodes. Manipulation of the nematode host genotype suggests that the neuromuscular intoxication caused by both B. pseudomallei and B. thailandensis acts in part through a disruption of normal Ca2+ signal transduction. Both species produce a UV-sensitive, gamma-irradiation-resistant, limited diffusion, paralytic agent as part of their nematode pathogenic mechanism. The results of this investigation suggest that killing by B. pseudomallei is an active process in C. elegans, and that the C. elegans model might be useful for the identification of vertebrate animal virulence factors in B. pseudomallei.