Measuring Caenorhabditis elegans Spatial Foraging and Food Intake Using Bioluminescent Bacteria

Genetics. 2020 Mar;214(3):577-587. doi: 10.1534/genetics.119.302804. Epub 2020 Jan 7.


For most animals, feeding includes two behaviors: foraging to find a food patch and food intake once a patch is found. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a useful model for studying the genetics of both behaviors. However, most methods of measuring feeding in worms quantify either foraging behavior or food intake, but not both. Imaging the depletion of fluorescently labeled bacteria provides information on both the distribution and amount of consumption, but even after patch exhaustion a prominent background signal remains, which complicates quantification. Here, we used a bioluminescent Escherichia coli strain to quantify C. elegans feeding. With light emission tightly coupled to active metabolism, only living bacteria are capable of bioluminescence, so the signal is lost upon ingestion. We quantified the loss of bioluminescence using N2 reference worms and eat-2 mutants, and found a nearly 100-fold increase in signal-to-background ratio and lower background compared to loss of fluorescence. We also quantified feeding using aggregating npr-1 mutant worms. We found that groups of npr-1 mutants first clear bacteria from within the cluster before foraging collectively for more food; similarly, during large population swarming, only worms at the migrating front are in contact with bacteria. These results demonstrate the usefulness of bioluminescent bacteria for quantifying feeding and generating insights into the spatial pattern of food consumption.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans; bioluminescence; feeding rate; food distribution; foraging; imaging.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / microbiology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics*
  • Eating / genetics*
  • Eating / physiology
  • Escherichia coli / chemistry
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology
  • Mutant Proteins / genetics
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Receptors, Neuropeptide Y / genetics*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • Eat-2 protein, C elegans
  • Mutant Proteins
  • NPR-1 protein, C elegans
  • Receptors, Neuropeptide Y
  • Receptors, Nicotinic