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Dine or dash? Genes help decide when to look for new food
Date:3/16/2011

orms have only 302 neurons, and the connections between all those neurons have all been precisely mapped. In contrast, the human brain has billions of neurons. What's more, most of the worm's 20,000 genes have equivalents in the human genome. "Behavior includes the action of genes, their function in neurons, and the neurons' assembly into circuits," Bargmann says. "Studying C. elegans gives you an exceptional ability to make connections between those levels."

Over the past decade, her lab has probed several of these levels. In 2004, they reported that C. elegans sense precise oxygen concentrations in soil, which helps steer them toward their favorite meal: oxygen-consuming bacteria. Three years later, they investigated what neurons do with chemosensory information, finding that odor-sensing neurons can switch on other cells that control crawling and turning behaviors.

In the new study, Bendesky and Bargmann went one level deeper, investigating how genetic tweaks can change a worm's behavior in particular circumstances. To do their experiments, the researchers placed hundreds of different strains of C. elegans onto Petri dishes lined with a circular "lawn" of bacteria and calculated the rate at which worms left the lawn. "Lawn-leaving is something that occurs abruptly, in an all-or-none way. It's very striking," Bargmann says.

To find the genes that affect the behavior, they collaborated with HHMI investigator Leonid Kruglyak and his postdoc Matt Rockman to use a technique called quantitative trait locus analysis, they then analyzed the precise genetic make-up of each strain and correlated it with how frequently each strain left its lawn. In the end, the researchers could pinpoint particular genetic blips associated with moving away from a food source.

One of those blips crops up in a gene called npr-1, which had already been associated with foraging behaviors and immunity in the worm. The npr-1 variant is a sp
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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