Optogenetic manipulation of neural activity in C. elegans: from synapse to circuits and behaviour

Biol Cell. 2013 Jun;105(6):235-50. doi: 10.1111/boc.201200069. Epub 2013 Apr 26.


The emerging field of optogenetics allows for optical activation or inhibition of excitable cells. In 2005, optogenetic proteins were expressed in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans for the first time. Since then, C. elegans has served as a powerful platform upon which to conduct optogenetic investigations of synaptic function, circuit dynamics and the neuronal basis of behaviour. The C. elegans nervous system, consisting of 302 neurons, whose connectivity and morphology has been mapped completely, drives a rich repertoire of behaviours that are quantifiable by video microscopy. This model organism's compact nervous system, quantifiable behaviour, genetic tractability and optical accessibility make it especially amenable to optogenetic interrogation. Channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), halorhodopsin (NpHR/Halo) and other common optogenetic proteins have all been expressed in C. elegans. Moreover, recent advances leveraging molecular genetics and patterned light illumination have now made it possible to target photoactivation and inhibition to single cells and to do so in worms as they behave freely. Here, we describe techniques and methods for optogenetic manipulation in C. elegans. We review recent work using optogenetics and C. elegans for neuroscience investigations at the level of synapses, circuits and behaviour.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / radiation effects
  • Female
  • Light
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurons / radiation effects
  • Optogenetics / methods*
  • Synapses / genetics*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / radiation effects