Sexual modulation of sex-shared neurons and circuits in Caenorhabditis elegans

J Neurosci Res. 2017 Jan 2;95(1-2):527-538. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23912.


Studies using the nematode C. elegans have provided unique insights into the development and function of sex differences in the nervous system. Enabled by the relative simplicity of this species, comprehensive studies have solved the complete cellular neuroanatomy of both sexes as well as the complete neural connectomes of the entire adult hermaphrodite and the adult male tail. This work, together with detailed behavioral studies, has revealed three aspects of sex differences in the nervous system: sex-specific neurons and circuits; circuits with sexually dimorphic synaptic connectivity; and sex differences in the physiology and functions of shared neurons and circuits. At all of these levels, biological sex influences neural development and function through the activity of a well-defined genetic hierarchy that acts throughout the body to translate chromosomal sex into the state of a master autosomal regulator of sexual differentiation, the transcription factor TRA-1A. This Review focuses on the role of genetic sex in implementing sex differences in shared neurons and circuits, with an emphasis on linking the sexual modulation of specific neural properties to the specification and optimization of sexually divergent and dimorphic behaviors. An important and unexpected finding from these studies is that chemosensory neurons are a primary focus of sexual modulation, with genetic sex adaptively shaping chemosensory repertoire to guide behavioral choice. Importantly, hormone-independent functions of genetic sex are the principal drivers of all of these sex differences, making nematodes an excellent model for understanding similar but poorly understood mechanisms that likely act throughout the animal kingdom. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans; genetic sex; neural circuits and behavior; sex differences; sexual behavior; sexual dimorphism.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Nervous System / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins