Molecular and neuronal mechanisms of thermosensation and thermosensory behavioral plasticity in C. elegans
Movie tracking centers of masses of worms navigating a thermal gradient ranging from 23.5-28.5°C (left-right). Animals were raised at 20°C and move towards the colder side (negative thermotaxis); animals at the edges are no longer tracked.

Animals have evolved complex mechanisms to respond and adapt to changes in critical external cues such as temperature. Many of these adaptations are homeostatic, allowing animals to maintain a relatively constant internal state in order to optimize functions. Ectotherms such as C. elegans primarily use behavioral strategies such as directed movement towards or away from temperature sources to mediate thermoregulation, although this is a strategy that is also employed by endotherms. The overall goal of this project is to identify the molecular and neuronal principles by which temperature is detected, transduced, and processed into specific behavioral outputs in an experience- and context-dependent manner. Given the strong conservation of neuron, synaptic and circuit mechanisms across species, we expect that information from this work will inform our general understanding of sensory processing and behavioral plasticity in higher animals, as well as expand our relatively poor knowledge of thermosensory signal transduction.

C. elegans exhibits particularly complex, experience-dependent thermosensory behaviors, providing an excellent system in which to explore the mechanisms that generate precise, yet flexible behaviors. Worms form a 'memory' of the temperature at which they are cultivated (Tc) and exhibit defined behaviors in temperature ranges relative to Tc. Thus, at temperatures higher than Tc worms move towards colder temperatures, whereas at temperatures lower than Tc they move towards warmer temperatures. At temperatures around Tc worms track isotherms. Remarkably, Tc memory is plastic and can be reset on short and long timescales of minutes to hours. Work from our lab and that of many others has identified several molecules and neurons required for the ability of C. elegans to respond to temperature changes of as little as 0.01ºC.

Members of the Axis of (Thermo)Taxis employ a multifaceted strategy combining genetic and molecular tools, quantitative behavioral assays, and in vivo calcium imaging to address the following questions:

The Axis of (Thermo)Taxis

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Funding: NIH R01 GM081639
NIH PO1 GM103770

Sengupta Lab | Department of Biology | Brandeis University
415 South Street | Waltham, Massachusetts 02454