Background: Government agencies have defined a need to reduce, refine or replace current mammalian-based bioassays with testing methods that use alternative species. Invertebrate species, such as Caenorhabditis elegans, provide an attractive option because of their short life cycles, inexpensive maintenance, and high degree of evolutionary conservation with higher eukaryotes. The C. elegans pharynx is a favorable model for studying neuromuscular function, and the effects of chemicals on neuromuscular activity, i.e., feeding. Current feeding methodologies, however, are labor intensive and only semi-quantitative.
Methodology/principal findings: Here a high-throughput assay is described that uses flow cytometry to measure C. elegans feeding by determining the size and intestinal fluorescence of hundreds of nematodes after exposure to fluorescent-labeled microspheres. This assay was validated by quantifying fluorescence in feeding-defective C. elegans (eat mutants), and by exposing wild-type nematodes to the neuroactive compounds, serotonin and arecoline. The eat mutations previously determined to cause slow pumping rates exhibited the lowest feeding levels with our assay. Concentration-dependent increases in feeding levels after serotonin exposures were dependent on food availability, while feeding levels decreased in arecoline-exposed nematodes regardless of the presence of food. The effects of the environmental contaminants, cadmium chloride and chlorpyrifos, on wild-type C. elegans feeding were then used to demonstrate an application of the feeding assay. Cadmium exposures above 200 microM led to a sharp drop in feeding levels. Feeding of chlorpyrifos-exposed nematodes decreased in a concentration-dependent fashion with an EC(50) of 2 microM.
Conclusions/significance: The C. elegans fluorescence microsphere feeding assay is a rapid, reliable method for the assessment of neurotoxic effects of pharmaceutical drugs, industrial chemicals or environmental agents. This assay may also be applicable to large scale genetic or RNAi screens used to identify genes that are necessary for the development or function of the pharynx or other neuromuscular systems.