Background:Mating behaviors in simple invertebrate model organisms represent tractable paradigms for understanding the neural bases of sex-specific behaviors, decision-making and sensorimotor integration. However, there are few examples where such neural circuits have been defined at high resolution or interrogated.Methodology/Principal Findings:Here we exploit the simplicity of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to define the neural circuits underlying the male's decision to initiate mating in response to contact with a mate. Mate contact is sensed by male-specific sensilla of the tail, the rays, which subsequently induce and guide a contact-based search of the hermaphrodite's surface for the vulva (the vulva search). Atypically, search locomotion has a backward directional bias so its implementation requires overcoming an intrinsic bias for forward movement, set by activity of the sex-shared locomotory system. Using optogenetics, cell-specific ablation- and mutant behavioral analyses, we show that the male makes this shift by manipulating the activity of command cells within this sex-shared locomotory system. The rays control the command interneurons through the male-specific, decision-making interneuron PVY and its auxiliary cell PVX. Unlike many sex-shared pathways, PVY/PVX regulate the command cells via cholinergic, rather than glutamatergic transmission, a feature that likely contributes to response specificity and coordinates directional movement with other cholinergic-dependent motor behaviors of the mating sequence. PVY/PVX preferentially activate the backward, and not forward, command cells because of a bias in synaptic inputs and the distribution of key cholinergic receptors (encoded by the genes acr-18, acr-16 and unc-29) in favor of the backward command cells.Conclusion/Significance:Our interrogation of male neural circuits reveals that a sex-specific response to the opposite sex is conferred by a male-specific pathway that renders subordinate, sex-shared motor programs responsive to mate cues. Circuit modifications of these types may make prominent contributions to natural variations in behavior that ultimately bring about speciation.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)