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J Neurosci. 2014 Jan 29;34(5):1579-91. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4352-13.2014.

Distributed effects of biological sex define sex-typical motor behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans.

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Center for Neural Development and Disease, Department of Biomedical Genetics, and Department of Biology, University of Rochester, School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, New York 14642.


Sex differences in shared behaviors (for example, locomotion and feeding) are a nearly universal feature of animal biology. Though these behaviors may share underlying neural programs, their kinematics can exhibit robust differences between males and females. The neural underpinnings of these differences are poorly understood because of the often-untested assumption that they are determined by sex-specific body morphology. Here, we address this issue in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, which features two sexes with distinct body morphologies but similar locomotor circuitry and body muscle. Quantitative behavioral analysis shows that C. elegans and related nematodes exhibit significant sex differences in the dynamics and geometry of locomotor body waves, such that the male is generally faster. Using a recently proposed model of locomotor wave propagation, we show that sex differences in both body mechanics and the intrinsic dynamics of the motor system can contribute to kinematic differences in distinct mechanical contexts. By genetically sex-reversing the properties of specific tissues and cells, however, we find that sex-specific locomotor frequency in C. elegans is determined primarily by the functional modification of shared sensory neurons. Further, we find that sexual modification of body wall muscle together with the nervous system is required to alter body wave speed. Thus, rather than relying on a single focus of modification, sex differences in motor dynamics require independent modifications to multiple tissue types. Our results suggest shared motor behaviors may be sex-specifically optimized though distributed modifications to several aspects of morphology and physiology.


C. elegans; locomotion; motor control; sex differences

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