The marginal cells of the Caenorhabditis elegans pharynx scavenge cholesterol and other hydrophobic small molecules

Nat Commun. 2019 Sep 2;10(1):3938. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-11908-0.


The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a bacterivore filter feeder. Through the contraction of the worm's pharynx, a bacterial suspension is sucked into the pharynx's lumen. Excess liquid is then shunted out of the buccal cavity through ancillary channels made by surrounding marginal cells. We find that many worm-bioactive small molecules (a.k.a. wactives) accumulate inside of the marginal cells as crystals or globular spheres. Through screens for mutants that resist the lethality associated with one crystallizing wactive we identify a presumptive sphingomyelin-synthesis pathway that is necessary for crystal and sphere accumulation. We find that expression of sphingomyelin synthase 5 (SMS-5) in the marginal cells is not only sufficient for wactive accumulation but is also important for absorbing exogenous cholesterol, without which C. elegans cannot develop. We conclude that sphingomyelin-rich marginal cells act as a sink to scavenge important nutrients from filtered liquid that might otherwise be shunted back into the environment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / cytology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cholesterol / metabolism*
  • Crystallization
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Mutation
  • Pharynx / cytology
  • Pharynx / metabolism*
  • Sphingomyelins / chemistry
  • Sphingomyelins / metabolism*
  • Transferases (Other Substituted Phosphate Groups) / genetics
  • Transferases (Other Substituted Phosphate Groups) / metabolism


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • Sphingomyelins
  • Cholesterol
  • Transferases (Other Substituted Phosphate Groups)
  • phosphatidylcholine-ceramide phosphocholine transferase