Adaptation of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to extreme osmotic stress

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2004 Apr;286(4):C785-91. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00381.2003. Epub 2003 Nov 26.


The ability to control osmotic balance is essential for cellular life. Cellular osmotic homeostasis is maintained by accumulation and loss of inorganic ions and organic osmolytes. Although osmoregulation has been studied extensively in many cell types, major gaps exist in our molecular understanding of this essential process. Because of its numerous experimental advantages, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans provides a powerful model system to characterize the genetic basis of animal cell osmoregulation. We therefore characterized the ability of worms to adapt to extreme osmotic stress. Exposure of worms to high-salt growth agar causes rapid shrinkage. Survival is normal on agar containing up to 200 mM NaCl. When grown on 200 mM NaCl for 2 wk, worms are able to survive well on agar containing up to 500 mM NaCl. HPLC analysis demonstrated that levels of the organic osmolyte glycerol increase 15- to 20-fold in nematodes grown on 200 mM NaCl agar. Accumulation of glycerol begins 3 h after exposure to hypertonic stress and peaks by 24 h. Glycerol accumulation is mediated primarily by synthesis from metabolic precursors. Consistent with this finding, hypertonicity increases transcriptional expression of glycerol 3-phosphate dehydrogenase, an enzyme that is rate limiting for hypertonicity-induced glycerol synthesis in yeast. Worms adapted to high salt swell and then return to their initial body volume when exposed to low-salt agar. During recovery from hypertonic stress, glycerol levels fall rapidly and glycerol excretion increases approximately fivefold. Our studies provide the first description of osmotic adaptation in C. elegans and provide the foundation for genetic and functional genomic analysis of animal cell osmoregulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic
  • Glycerol / metabolism
  • Glycerol-3-Phosphate Dehydrogenase (NAD+)
  • Glycerolphosphate Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Osmotic Pressure*
  • Saline Solution, Hypertonic / pharmacology
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance / drug effects
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance / physiology*


  • Saline Solution, Hypertonic
  • Glycerolphosphate Dehydrogenase
  • Glycerol-3-Phosphate Dehydrogenase (NAD+)
  • Glycerol