JGP study finds that the C. elegans orthologue of the PIEZO family is a mechanosensitive ion channel that regulates pharyngeal pumping and food sensation.
The PIEZO family of mechanosensitive cation channels has been implicated in a wide variety of physiological processes in mammals and is also associated with human disease. Mammalian genomes encode two family members, known as Piezo1 and Piezo2, but invertebrates such as the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans only possess a single Piezo-related gene (1). The function of the C. elegans orthologue, known as pezo-1, has largely remained obscure, but, in this issue of JGP, Millet et al. reveal that it encodes a bona fide mechanosensitive ion channel that regulates pharyngeal activity (2).
In 2020, an elegant study demonstrated that pezo-1 controls C. elegans ovulation and fertilization (3). However, explains Valeria Vásquez from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, whether pezo-1 encodes for a mechanosensitive ion channel was unknown. “PEZO-1 is expressed in many tissues, including the pharynx, which is the organ we decided to concentrate on in our study,” Vásquez says.
Muscle cells in the C. elegans pharynx rhythmically contract and relax to pump food into the worm’s intestine. Vásquez and colleagues, including first author Jonathan Millet, found that PEZO-1 is expressed in several different pharyngeal cell types (2), including the gland cells whose secretions lubricate the pharynx, and the proprioceptive NSM neurons that are thought to sense the presence of food within the pharynx lumen and release serotonin to increase the rate of pharyngeal pumping.
Millet et al. analyzed pharyngeal pumping in worms lacking pezo-1, as well as in animals expressing a pezo-1 point mutant that, in human Piezo1, increases channel function by slowing channel deactivation and inactivation. Loss or gain of pezo-1 function had surprisingly little effect on pharyngeal activity, causing only mild alterations in the duration and frequency of pumping induced by serotonin, and more obvious effects when challenged with high osmolarity solutions.
Worms cultured in the laboratory are usually fed a diet of small, easily ingested Escherichia coli cells and, both loss and gain of pezo-1 function increased the pharynx’s response to this type of food. In their natural habitat, however, C. elegans encounter bacteria of various shapes and sizes, some of which might be harder to swallow. “It occurred to me that it might make a difference if we fed the worms with bacteria that were stiffer and longer,” Vásquez says.
The researchers therefore provided their pezo-1 mutants with E. coli treated with cephalexin, an antibiotic that inhibits cell separation and causes the bacteria to form long, spaghetti-like filaments. Compared with wild-type worms fed with this diet, pharyngeal activity was markedly enhanced by the gain-of-function pezo-1 mutant, but substantially reduced in the absence of pezo-1, almost as if the worms were “choking” on the bacterial filaments.
Crucially, by performing patch-clamp experiments on both cultured C. elegans cells and insect cells expressing recombinant pezo-1, Millet et al. confirmed that PEZO-1 is, indeed, a mechanosensitive ion channel. However, it remains to be seen exactly how PEZO-1 helps the pharynx sense the physical parameters of food and adjust its pumping activity accordingly. One possibility is that the channel acts within the proprioceptive neurons to regulate the release of serotonin.
Intriguingly, the Drosophila PIEZO orthologue controls feeding behavior in flies (4). “However, it’s not known which mechanosensitive channels are important in the pharyngeal system of mammals,” Vásquez says. “Our studies in C. elegans could therefore open an opportunity to understand food sensation in humans.”
This work is part of a special issue on mechanotransduction by membrane proteins.