Many neuronal groups such as dopamine-releasing (dopaminergic) neurons are functionally divergent, although the details of such divergence are not well understood. Dopamine in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans modulates various neural functions and is released from four left-right pairs of neurons. The terminal identities of these dopaminergic neurons are regulated by the same genetic program, and previous studies have suggested that they are functionally redundant. In this study, however, we show functional divergence within the dopaminergic neurons of C. elegans. Because dopaminergic neurons of the animals were supposedly activated by mechanical stimulus upon entry into a lawn of their food bacteria, we developed a novel integrated microscope system that can auto-Track a freely-moving (in actio) C. elegans to individually monitor and stimulate the neuronal activities of multiple neurons. We found that only head-dorsal pair of dopaminergic neurons (CEPD), but not head-ventral or posterior pairs, were preferentially activated upon food entry. In addition, the optogenetic activation of CEPD neurons alone exhibited effects similar to those observed upon food entry. Thus, our results demonstrated functional divergence in the genetically similar dopaminergic neurons, which may provide a new entry point toward understanding functional diversity of neurons beyond genetic terminal identification.
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