The nematode C. elegans senses airborne sound

Neuron. 2021 Nov 17;109(22):3633-3646.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2021.08.035. Epub 2021 Sep 22.


Unlike olfaction, taste, touch, vision, and proprioception, which are widespread across animal phyla, hearing is found only in vertebrates and some arthropods. The vast majority of invertebrate species are thus considered insensitive to sound. Here, we challenge this conventional view by showing that the earless nematode C. elegans senses airborne sound at frequencies reaching the kHz range. Sound vibrates C. elegans skin, which acts as a pressure-to-displacement transducer similar to vertebrate eardrum, activates sound-sensitive FLP/PVD neurons attached to the skin, and evokes phonotaxis behavior. We identified two nAChRs that transduce sound signals independently of ACh, revealing an unexpected function of nAChRs in mechanosensation. Thus, the ability to sense airborne sound is not restricted to vertebrates and arthropods as previously thought, and might have evolved multiple times independently in the animal kingdom, suggesting convergent evolution. Our studies also demonstrate that animals without ears may not be presumed to be sound insensitive.

Keywords: ENaC; Piezo; TMC; TRP; audition; auditory; channel; mechanosensitive; mechanosensory; mechanotransduction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins* / physiology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans* / physiology
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular / physiology
  • Proprioception
  • Touch / physiology


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins