Nematodes, or roundworms, are found everywhere on earth, and more than 25,000 species have been identified. They can be either free-living, such as the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, or parasitic, causing disease in plants and animals — including humans.
Nematodes communicate by secreting a family of pheromones called the ascarosides to coordinate their development as well as their behavior. For example, when faced with harsh environmental conditions, nematodes use specific ascarosides — ‘the dauer pheromone’ — to induce the development of the stress-resistant dauer larval stage.
A recent paper from the laboratory of UFCST member Dr. Rebecca Butcher (University of Florida Department of Chemistry) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., outlines the biosynthetic pathway used to make the ascarosides and establishes how environmental factors influence that pathway.
Dr. Butcher and her colleagues found that stressful conditions, such as high temperature and low food availability, induce the expression of specific enzymes, called acyl-CoA oxidases. By influencing which of three acyl-CoA oxidases are expressed, these environmental stressors can impact the composition, and thus potency, of the ascaroside pheromones. This study offers important new insights into the mechanisms by which these ubiquitous organisms regulate their life cycle, and may lead to novel strategies for controlling disease-causing nematodes.