Genetics of Intraspecies Variation in Avoidance Behavior Induced by a Thermal Stimulus in Caenorhabditis elegans.
Individuals within a species vary in their responses to a wide range of stimuli, partly as a result of differences in their genetic makeup. Relatively little is known about the genetic and neuronal mechanisms contributing to diversity of behavior in natural populations. By studying intraspecies variation in innate avoidance behavior to thermal stimuli in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, we uncovered genetic principles of how different components of a behavioral response can be altered in nature to generate behavioral diversity. Using a thermal pulse assay, we uncovered heritable variation in responses to a transient temperature increase. Quantitative trait locus mapping revealed that separate components of this response were controlled by distinct genomic loci. The loci we identified contributed to variation in components of thermal pulse avoidance behavior in an additive fashion. Our results show that the escape behavior induced by thermal stimuli is composed of simpler behavioral components that are influenced by at least six distinct genetic loci. The loci that decouple components of the escape behavior reveal a genetic system that allows independent modification of behavioral parameters. Our work sets the foundation for future studies of evolution of innate behaviors at the molecular and neuronal level.