Form meets function

Professor of Biology Piali Sengupta gave the 2015 Stetten Lecture at NIGMS on Oct 21 on Form Meets Function: Structurally Diverse Cilia and Their Roles in Sensory SignalingThe “cilia squad” in the Sengupta Lab has been working for some years now to examine cilia formation in sensory neurons in the nematode C. elegans, and the relationship between the structure and nerve cell function. You can watch Piali’s lecture online.


How many neurons does it take to stay cool?

The worm (nematode) C. elegans is a nice model system for studying neuroscience, combining

  • genetic tools that allow genes to be turned on or off, often on a per cell basis, in the whole organism,
  • tools like laser or genetic ablation that allow individual, identified cells to be selectively eliminated,
  • robust behaviors that can be readily measured, and
  • a well defined nervous system consisting of 302 neurons, each of which can be identified, and whoseanatomical connectivity has been established.

In a paper appearing this month in Journal of Neuroscience, Molecular and Cell Biology grad student Matthew Beverly, undergrad Sriram Anbil, and Professor of Biology Piali Sengupta examined the contribution of sensory neurons to controlling thermotaxis in C. elegans. Worms develop a memory of the temperature at which they have been cultivated, and display a robust behavior in which worms placed on a temperature gradient at temperatures higher than their cultivation temperature will crawl back towards colder temperature (negative thermotaxis – see movie). The behavior depends on TAX-4, a channel protein expressed in a subset of the sensory neurons. In this study, the Brandeis researchers asked the question “how many and which of the sensory neurons are required for the worms to perform negative thermotaxis, and are the required sensory neurons the same regardless of the temperature range examined?” (or, in my paraphrase, “how many and which neurons does it take to stay cool?”)

Worm head, showing expression of the calcim indicator GCaMP in ASI and AWA neurons (used in calcium imaging experiments)

As it turns out, the answer is complicated (and readers are encouraged to read the paper). The researchers found that in addition to the previously known thermosensory neurons AFD and AWC, the ASI neurons previously known to be involved in chemosensation play a significant role in regulating negative thermotaxis. Interestingly, the circuits used seem to be degenerate; under one condition, for example, a particular combination of AFD, AWC or ASI is necessary to generate the behavior, although at other conditions, a different combination is required to generate the same behavior.. And only a couple of degrees Celsius makes a difference — the circuit required for negative thermotaxis on a gradient centered at 8oC above the cultivation temperature is different from a gradient centered at 6oC above.

These and other results taken together suggest that even in the worm, a complex circuit has evolved to control crawling behaviors to cope with temperature changes, and that having degeneracy in the underlying circuits may be a common feature that ensures that behaviors crucial to survival are maintained in a variety of environmental conditions..

Beverly M, Anbil S, Sengupta P. Degeneracy and Neuromodulation among Thermosensory Neurons Contribute to Robust Thermosensory Behaviors in Caenorhabditis elegans. J Neurosci. 2011;31(32):11718-27.

Time for Worms in Circadian Biology

Almost every organism on earth, from archae to humans, exhibits circadian rhythms – periodic cycles of behavior or gene expression that repeat approximately every 24 hours. These rhythms are generated by a circadian clock – an internal time-keeping mechanism – which can be entrained and synchronized by environmental cues such as temperature or light/dark cycles. This clock may provide organisms with an adaptive advantage throughout their life, and disruption of the function of this clock can lead to severe behavioral and metabolic disorders in humans.

For more than two decades researchers have wondered whether the tiny soil-dwelling nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, one of the foremost model organisms, contains a circadian clock. Circadian rhythmic behaviors described previously in C. elegans are variable and hard to quantify, and no genes were known to exhibit gene expression oscillations with 24 hr cycles as shown in many other animals.

Now, in a recent study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, several students and postdoctoral fellows in the labs of Piali Sengupta and Michael Rosbash joined forces and took on the challenge to identify C. elegans genes under clock control.

Light and temperature cycles both drive and entrain 24 hr oscillations in gene expression in C. elegans.

They showed that indeed C. elegans contains genes whose expression cycles in a circadian manner. They found that light and temperature cycles appear to regulate different sets of genes (see above), indicating that these stimuli may entrain two distinct clocks. Moreover, the underlying clock mechanisms may not be dependent on oscillations of known clock genes. “These findings were surprising to us since Drosophila only has a single conserved clock running in multiple cells and tissues” says Alexander van der Linden – lead author and former postdoctoral fellow in the Sengupta Lab.

C. elegans has a wealth of genetic and behavioral tools. The next critical step will be to identify the mechanisms underlying the C. elegans circadian clock(s). These investigations may also provide information of how the clock evolved since nematodes and humans split about 600-1200 million years ago.

Alexander M. van der Linden is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. The work was conducted in the labs of Profs. Michael Rosbash, a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Piali Sengupta in the Department of Biology. Other authors who contributed to this work include Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students Matthew Beverly, Joseph Rodriquez and Sara Wasserman (now a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA), and Sebastian Kadener, a former postdoctoral fellow who is now an Assistant Professor at the Silberman Institute of Life Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

New Sengupta Lab Website

The Sengupta Lab website has been updated with lots of new imagery. Check it out!

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