Animals are frequently challenged by either acute or chronic low oxygen availability in their living environments. Interruption of oxygen supply for more than a few minutes could lead to irreversible pathogenesis of many major causes of mortality in humans. Animals have evolved sophisticated systems to circumvent the effects caused by the variation in oxygen tension. Despite intensive research, the molecular and neural circuit bases of acute and prolonged oxygen responses remain unclear.
We are investigating acute and chronic oxygen sensation in the nematode C. elegans. Studying oxygen sensing in C. elegans provides many unique advantages over other systems. C. elegans robustly avoids oxygen levels that are either too high or too low. It is amenable for high-throughput behavioural screens to identify functionally relevant molecules without prior knowledge, and its fully-constructed nervous system allows us to trace flow of information from sensory inputs to motor outputs. We will combine large-scale genetic screen, biochemistry, calcium imaging, optogenetics, and single neuron transcriptional profiling to delineate oxygen sensing mechanisms at both molecular and neural circuit levels. Our research has the potential to gain important new insights into the neuronal basis of behavioural and physiological adaptations that are important for an organism to survive better under extreme conditions.