Hierarchical sparse coding in the sensory system of Caenorhabditis elegans

Alon Zaslaver, Idan Liani, Oshrat Shtangel, Shira Ginzburg, Lisa Yee, Paul W. Sternberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Animals with compact sensory systems face an encoding problem where a small number of sensory neurons are required to encode information about its surrounding complex environment. Using Caenorhabditis elegans worms as a model, we ask how chemical stimuli are encoded by a small and highly connected sensory system. We first generated a comprehensive library of transgenic worms where each animal expresses a genetically encoded calcium indicator in individual sensory neurons. This library includes the vast majority of the sensory system in C. elegans. Imaging from individual sensory neurons while subjecting the worms to various stimuli allowed us to compile a comprehensive functional map of the sensory system at single neuron resolution. The functional map reveals that despite the dense wiring, chemosensory neurons represent the environment using sparse codes. Moreover, although anatomically closely connected, chemo- and mechano-sensory neurons are functionally segregated. In addition, the code is hierarchical, where few neurons participate in encoding multiple cues, whereas other sensory neurons are stimulus specific. This encoding strategy may have evolved to mitigate the constraints of a compact sensory system.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1185-1189
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number4
StatePublished - 27 Jan 2015


  • Calcium imagaing
  • Neural circuits
  • Sensory coding


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