Neurotransmitter signaling through heterotrimeric G proteins: insights from studies in C. elegans

WormBook. 2018 Dec 11:2018:1-52. doi: 10.1895/wormbook.1.75.2.


Neurotransmitters signal via G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) to modulate activity of neurons and muscles. C. elegans has ∼150 G protein coupled neuropeptide receptor homologs and 28 additional GPCRs for small-molecule neurotransmitters. Genetic studies in C. elegans demonstrate that neurotransmitters diffuse far from their release sites to activate GPCRs on distant cells. Individual receptor types are expressed on limited numbers of cells and thus can provide very specific regulation of an individual neural circuit and behavior. G protein coupled neurotransmitter receptors signal principally via the three types of heterotrimeric G proteins defined by the G alpha subunits Gαo, Gαq, and Gαs. Each of these G alpha proteins is found in all neurons plus some muscles. Gαo and Gαq signaling inhibit and activate neurotransmitter release, respectively. Gαs signaling, like Gαq signaling, promotes neurotransmitter release. Many details of the signaling mechanisms downstream of Gαq and Gαs have been delineated and are consistent with those of their mammalian orthologs. The details of the signaling mechanism downstream of Gαo remain a mystery. Forward genetic screens in C. elegans have identified new molecular components of neural G protein signaling mechanisms, including Regulators of G protein Signaling (RGS proteins) that inhibit signaling, a new Gαq effector (the Trio RhoGEF domain), and the RIC-8 protein that is required for neuronal Gα signaling. A model is presented in which G proteins sum up the variety of neuromodulator signals that impinge on a neuron to calculate its appropriate output level.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism*
  • Heterotrimeric GTP-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Heterotrimeric GTP-Binding Proteins / metabolism*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Heterotrimeric GTP-Binding Proteins