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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2011 Nov;86(4):853-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2011.00174.x. Epub 2011 Feb 14.

Together or alone?: foraging strategies in Caenorhabditis elegans.

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Department of Cellular Animal Physiology, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


A central goal in Life Sciences is to understand how genes encode behaviour and how environmental factors influence the expression of the genes concerned. To reach this goal a combined ecological, molecular biological and physiological approach is required in combination with a suitable model organism. Such an approach allows the elucidation of all parts of the complicated chain of events that lead from induction of gene expression to behaviour, i.e. from environmental stimulus, sensory organs and extracellular and intracellular neuronal signal processing to activation of effector organs. A particularly good model species with which to take this approach is the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, as it has been described in great detail at the genomic, cellular and behavioural levels. Different strains of C. elegans display prominent behavioural variation in foraging behaviour. Some strains will form social feeding groups when subjected to certain environmental stimuli, while others do not. This variation is due to the existence of just two isoforms of the gene npr-1, namely 215F and 215V. Here, we describe these behavioural variations at the molecular and cellular levels to attempt to determine the environmental inputs that cause aggregation of these small nematodes. As many different stimuli affect aggregation either positively or negatively, aggregation behaviour seems to be displayed when it improves survival chances. However, not much is known about the ecological context in which C. elegans lives. Investigation of the habitats of different strains of C. elegans would help us to understand why and how a specific foraging strategy enhances survival. The relatively well-understood molecular pathways that direct its social feeding behaviour make C. elegans a highly suitable model organism to test ecological and behavioural hypotheses about the mechanisms that differentiate between aggregation and solitary behaviours.

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