Food responsiveness regulates episodic behavioral states in Caenorhabditis elegans

Richard J. McCloskey, Anthony D. Fouad, Matthew A. Churgin, Christopher Fang-Yen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


Animals optimize survival and reproduction in part through control of behavioral states, which depend on an organism’s internal and external environments. In the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans a variety of behavioral states have been described, including roaming, dwelling, quiescence, and episodic swimming. These states have been considered in isolation under varied experimental conditions, making it difficult to establish a unified picture of how they are regulated. Using long-term imaging, we examined C. elegans episodic behavioral states under varied mechanical and nutritional environments. We found that animals alternate between high-activity (active) and low-activity (sedentary) episodes in any mechanical environment, while the incidence of episodes and their behavioral composition depend on food levels. During active episodes, worms primarily roam, as characterized by continuous whole body movement. During sedentary episodes, animals exhibit dwelling (slower movements confined to the anterior half of the body) and quiescence (a complete lack of movement). Roaming, dwelling, and quiescent states are manifest not only through locomotory characteristics but also in pharyngeal pumping (feeding) and in egg-laying behaviors. Next, we analyzed the genetic basis of behavioral states. We found that modulation of behavioral states depends on neuropeptides and insulin-like signaling in the nervous system. Sensory neurons and the Foraging homolog EGL-4 regulate behavior through control of active/sedentary episodes. Optogenetic stimulation of dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons induced dwelling, implicating dopamine as a dwell-promoting neurotransmitter. Our findings provide a more unified description of behavioral states and suggest that perception of nutrition is a conserved mechanism for regulating animal behavior. NEW & NOTEWORTHY One strategy by which animals adapt to their internal states and external environments is by adopting behavioral states. The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is an attractive model for investigating how behavioral states are genetically and neuronally controlled. Here we describe the hierarchical organization of behavioral states characterized by locomotory activity, feeding, and egg-laying. We show that decisions to engage in these behaviors are controlled by the nervous system through insulin-like signaling and the perception of food.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1911-1934
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2017 May

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 the American Physiological Society.


  • Behavioral state
  • Egg-laying
  • Feeding
  • Insulin-like signaling
  • Locomotion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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