Using a laser microbeam to kill specific subsets of the pharyngeal nervous system of C. elegans, we found that feeding was accomplished by two separately controlled muscle motions, isthmus peristalsis and pumping. The single neuron M4 was necessary and sufficient for isthmus peristalsis. The MC neurons were necessary for normal stimulation of pumping in response to food, but pumping continued and was functional in MC- worms. The remaining 12 neuron types were also unnecessary for functional pumping. No operation we did, including destruction of the entire pharyngeal nervous system, abolished pumping altogether. When we killed all pharyngeal neurons except M4, the worms were viable and fertile, although retarded and starved. Since feeding is one of the few known essential actions controlled by the nervous system, we suggest that most of the C. elegans nervous system is dispensable in hermaphrodites under laboratory conditions. This may explain the ease with which nervous system mutants are isolated and handled in C. elegans.