Research highlight

Sensing sustained environmental threats

Nature Neuroscience

March 5, 2012

The mechanisms that mediate the behavior of the worm C. elegans in response to environmental oxygen concentration are described in a study published online this week in Nature Neuroscience. These results represent an important step in our understanding of how animals implement persistent defense behaviors. All organisms have to deal with a barrage of environmental information. Sensory systems have therefore evolved adaptive mechanisms that allow them to only react briefly to most stimuli, or rapidly ignore some of them. However, certain harmful stimuli have to hold our attention for a prolonged period of time, but the mechanisms that mediate this sustained response are not fully understood. In the wild, C. elegans is likely exposed to oxygen concentrations varying from very low to very high levels. When exposed to higher or lower oxygen concentrations, the worm responds by changing speed or direction, or by aggregating with other worms to collectively reduce oxygen concentrations. Mario De Bono and colleagues studied the oxygen-sensing neurons of the worm, called ‘tonic’ sensors, that respond continuously during oxygen exposure. Using a set of genetic tools, the scientists worked out the molecular mechanisms in these neurons that are required to generate these tonic signals, and determined how these signals are transformed in different downstream neurons to elicit short and long-term behaviors.

doi: 10.1038/nn.3061

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