A Cholinergic Sensory-Motor Circuit Controls the Male Copulation Behavior in C. elegans
MetadataShow full item record
The nervous system coordinates a sequence of muscle movements to give rise to animal behaviors. In complex invertebrates or lab-studied vertebrates, due to the large number of cells in their nervous systems and the complexities of their behaviors, it is difficult to address how circuits process information to direct each motor output of the behavior. In this dissertation, I used the Caenorhabditis elegans male copulation behavior as a model to address how a compact circuit coordinates different behavioral programs. Insertion of a male copulatory organ into a suitable mate is a conserved and necessary behavioral step for most terrestrial mating. However, the detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms for this distinct social interaction have not been elucidated in any animal. During mating, the C. elegans male cloaca is positioned over the hermaphrodite’s vulva as he attempts to insert his copulatory spicules repetitively. Rhythmic spicule thrusts cease when insertion is sensed. Circuit components consisting of sensory/motor neurons and sex muscles for these steps have been previously identified, but it was unclear how their outputs are integrated to generate a coordinated behavior pattern. Here, I show that contraction of the male oblique muscles is required to sustain genital contact between the sexes. These muscles are innervated by the postcloacal sensilla (p.c.s.) sensory/motor neurons, which secret ACh to activate the levamisole-sensitive AChR and the ACR-16-containing ionotropic AChR on the oblique muscles. For spicules to rhythmically thrust during genital contact, activity of the oblique muscles and the gubernacular muscles is transmitted to the spicule protractor muscles instantaneously via gap junctions between these muscles and causes shallow protractor contractions. The rhythmic protractor contractions eventually switch to sustained contraction, as the SPC sensory-motor neurons integrate information of spicule position at the vulva with inputs from the hook and cloacal sensilla. The ERG-like K+ channel, UNC-103, which decreases the spicule circuit excitability, is likely to set a threshold requirement for integration of these inputs, so that sustained spicule muscle contraction is not stimulated by fewer inputs. In addition, I demonstrate that a cholinergic signaling pathway mediated by a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor, GAR-3, is used to enhance the ionotropic AChRs-mediated fast synaptic transmission in the copulation circuit. GAR-3 is expressed in multiple cells of the copulation circuit, but mainly in the cholinergic p.c.s. neurons and SPC neurons. Activation of GAR-3 is coupled to Gαq to trigger downstream signal transduction events that modulate neurotransmitter release from these neurons. Males with a loss-of-function allele of the gar-3 gene are defective in inserting their spicules into the hermaphrodite’s vulva efficiently. Since the p.c.s. neurons regulate the male’s contact with the hermaphrodite’s vulva, and the SPC neurons are required for spicule insertion during mating, GAR-3 probably facilitates male mating behavior via enhancing synaptic transmission from these neurons to their postsynaptic partners.
Liu, Yishi (2011). A Cholinergic Sensory-Motor Circuit Controls the Male Copulation Behavior in C. elegans. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from