Douglas K. Reilly and Jagan Srinivasan
To survive, animals must properly sense their surrounding environment. The types of sensation that allow for detecting these changes can be categorized as tactile, thermal, aural, or olfactory. Olfaction is one of the most primitive senses, involving the detection of environmental chemical cues. Organisms must sense and discriminate between abiotic and biogenic cues, necessitating a system that can react and respond to changes quickly. The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, offers a unique set of tools for studying the biology of olfactory sensation.
The olfactory system in C. elegans is comprised of 14 pairs of amphid neurons in the head and two pairs of phasmid neurons in the tail. The male nervous system contains an additional 89 neurons, many of which are exposed to the environment and contribute to olfaction. The cues sensed by these olfactory neurons initiate a multitude of responses, ranging from developmental changes to behavioral responses. Environmental cues might initiate entry into or exit from a long-lived alternative larval developmental stage (dauer), or pheromonal stimuli may attract sexually mature mates, or repel conspecifics in crowded environments. C. elegans are also capable of sensing abiotic stimuli, exhibiting attraction and repulsion to diverse classes of chemicals. Unlike canonical mammalian olfactory neurons, C. elegans chemosensory neurons express more than one receptor per cell. This enables detection of hundreds of chemical structures and concentrations by a chemosensory nervous system with few cells. However, each neuron detects certain classes of olfactory cues, and, combined with their synaptic pathways, elicit similar responses (i.e., aversive behaviors). The functional architecture of this chemosensory system is capable of supporting the development and behavior of nematodes in a manner efficient enough to allow for the genus to have a cosmopolitan distribution.
Synaptic connections in the brain can change their strength in response to patterned activity. This ability of synapses is defined as synaptic plasticity. Long lasting forms of synaptic plasticity, long-term potentiation (LTP), and long-term depression (LTD), are thought to mediate the storage of information about stimuli or features of stimuli in a neural circuit. Since its discovery in the early 1970s, synaptic plasticity became a central subject of neuroscience, and many studies centered on understanding its mechanisms, as well as its functional implications.