How Caenorhabditis elegans Senses Mechanical Stress, Temperature, and Other Physical Stimuli

Genetics. 2019 May;212(1):25-51. doi: 10.1534/genetics.118.300241.


Caenorhabditis elegans lives in a complex habitat in which they routinely experience large fluctuations in temperature, and encounter physical obstacles that vary in size and composition. Their habitat is shared by other nematodes, by beneficial and harmful bacteria, and nematode-trapping fungi. Not surprisingly, these nematodes can detect and discriminate among diverse environmental cues, and exhibit sensory-evoked behaviors that are readily quantifiable in the laboratory at high resolution. Their ability to perform these behaviors depends on <100 sensory neurons, and this compact sensory nervous system together with powerful molecular genetic tools has allowed individual neuron types to be linked to specific sensory responses. Here, we describe the sensory neurons and molecules that enable C. elegans to sense and respond to physical stimuli. We focus primarily on the pathways that allow sensation of mechanical and thermal stimuli, and briefly consider this animal's ability to sense magnetic and electrical fields, light, and relative humidity. As the study of sensory transduction is critically dependent upon the techniques for stimulus delivery, we also include a section on appropriate laboratory methods for such studies. This chapter summarizes current knowledge about the sensitivity and response dynamics of individual classes of C. elegans mechano- and thermosensory neurons from in vivo calcium imaging and whole-cell patch-clamp electrophysiology studies. We also describe the roles of conserved molecules and signaling pathways in mediating the remarkably sensitive responses of these nematodes to mechanical and thermal cues. These studies have shown that the protein partners that form mechanotransduction channels are drawn from multiple superfamilies of ion channel proteins, and that signal transduction pathways responsible for temperature sensing in C. elegans share many features with those responsible for phototransduction in vertebrates.

Keywords: C. elegans; WormBook; mechanosensation; thermosensation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Mechanical Phenomena
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular*
  • Sensation
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / metabolism
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Stress, Physiological*
  • Temperature
  • Thermosensing*