A cholinergic-regulated circuit coordinates the maintenance and bi-stable states of a sensory-motor behavior during Caenorhabditis elegans male copulation.
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Penetration of a male copulatory organ into a suitable mate is a conserved and necessary behavioral step for most terrestrial matings; however, the detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms for this distinct social interaction have not been elucidated in any animal. During mating, the Caenorhabditis elegans male cloaca is maintained over the hermaphrodite's vulva as he attempts to insert his copulatory spicules. Rhythmic spicule thrusts cease when insertion is sensed. Circuit components consisting of sensory/motor neurons and sex muscles for these steps have been previously identified, but it was unclear how their outputs are integrated to generate a coordinated behavior pattern. Here, we show that cholinergic signaling between the cloacal sensory/motor neurons and the posterior sex muscles sustains genital contact between the sexes. Simultaneously, via gap junctions, signaling from these muscles is transmitted to the spicule muscles, thus coupling repeated spicule thrusts with vulval contact. To transit from rhythmic to sustained muscle contraction during penetration, the SPC sensory-motor neurons integrate the signal of spicule's position in the vulva with inputs from the hook and cloacal sensilla. The UNC-103 K(+) channel maintains a high excitability threshold in the circuit, so that sustained spicule muscle contraction is not stimulated by fewer inputs. We demonstrate that coordination of sensory inputs and motor outputs used to initiate, maintain, self-monitor, and complete an innate behavior is accomplished via the coupling of a few circuit components.