An efficient behavioral screening platform classifies natural products and other chemical cues according to their chemosensory valence in C. elegans

bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2024 Apr 3:2023.06.02.542933. doi: 10.1101/2023.06.02.542933.


Throughout history, humans have relied on plants as a source of medication, flavoring, and food. Plants synthesize large chemical libraries and release many of these compounds into the rhizosphere and atmosphere where they affect animal and microbe behavior. To survive, nematodes must have evolved the sensory capacity to distinguish plant-made small molecules (SMs) that are harmful and must be avoided from those that are beneficial and should be sought. This ability to classify chemical cues as a function of their value is fundamental to olfaction, and represents a capacity shared by many animals, including humans. Here, we present an efficient platform based on multi-well plates, liquid handling instrumentation, inexpensive optical scanners, and bespoke software that can efficiently determine the valence (attraction or repulsion) of single SMs in the model nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans. Using this integrated hardware-wetware-software platform, we screened 90 plant SMs and identified 37 that attracted or repelled wild-type animals, but had no effect on mutants defective in chemosensory transduction. Genetic dissection indicates that for at least 10 of these SMs, response valence emerges from the integration of opposing signals, arguing that olfactory valence is often determined by integrating chemosensory signals over multiple lines of information. This study establishes that C. elegans is an effective discovery engine for determining chemotaxis valence and for identifying natural products detected by the chemosensory nervous system.

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