, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 254-271
Date: 27 Sep 2007

Mechanotransduction: Touch and Feel at the Molecular Level as Modeled in Caenorhabditis elegans

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Abstract

The survival of an organism depends on its ability to respond to its environment through its senses. The sense of touch is one of the most vital; still, it is the least understood. In the process of touch sensation, a mechanical stimulus is converted into electrical signals. Groundbreaking electrophysiological experiments in organisms ranging from bacteria to mammals have suggested that this conversion may occur through the activation of ion channels that gate in response to mechanical stimuli. However, the molecular identity of these channels has remained elusive for a very long time. Breakthroughs in our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of touch sensation have come from the analysis of touch-insensitive mutants in model organisms such as Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster. This review will focus on the elegant genetic, molecular, imaging, and electrophysiological studies that demonstrate that a channel complex composed of two members of the DEG/ENaC gene family of channel subunits (named for the C. elegans degenerins and the related mammalian epithelial amiloride-sensitive Na channel), MEC-4 and MEC-10, and accessory subunits is gated by mechanical forces in touch-sensing neurons from C. elegans. I also report here electrophysiological and behavioral studies employing knockout mice that have recently shown that mammalian homologues of MEC-4, MEC-10, and accessory subunits are needed for normal mechanosensitivity in mouse, suggesting a conserved function for this channel family across species. The C. elegans genome encodes 28 DEG/ENaC channels: I discuss here the global role of DEG/ENaCs in mechanosensation, reporting findings on the role of other three nematode DEG/ENaCs (UNC-8, DEL-1, and UNC-105) in mechanosensitive and stretch-sensitive behaviors. Finally, this review will discuss findings in which members of another family of ion channels, the Transient Receptor Potential channels family, have been implicated in mechanosensitive behaviors in organisms ranging from C. elegans to mammals.