Three dominant mutations of mec-4, a gene needed for mechanosensation, cause the touch-receptor neurons of Caenorhabditis elegans to degenerate. With deg-1, another C. elegans gene that can mutate to induce neuronal degeneration and that is similar in sequence, mec-4 defines a new gene family. Cross-hybridizing sequences are detectable in other species, raising the possibility that degenerative conditions in other organisms may be caused by mutations in similar genes. All three dominant mec-4 mutations affect the same amino acid. Effects of amino-acid substitutions at this position suggest that steric hindrance may induce the degenerative state.