Internal collaboration creates new tool to assess feeding behaviour

 13 January 2020   Research News

The Behavioural Genomics group at the MRC LMS are interested in collective behaviours which they study in the model organism C.elegans. They are particularly interested in feeding behaviour and how these worms forage to find a patch of food and how they consume the food once they have found it. However, most methods for studying this kind of behaviour can only measure one of these aspects and not both. Additionally, these methods also use fluorescently labelled bacteria as a source of food for the worms, which leaves a lingering glow even after the bacteria have been eaten, making it really tricky to measure.

However, the findings published in Genetics on 7 January by the Behavioural Genomics group in collaboration with our Synthetic Biology lab at the MRC LMS have demonstrated how using bioluminescent bacteria makes measuring feeding behaviour much easier.

André Brown, Head of the Behavioural Genomics group, discussed the collaboration:

“We have had a longstanding issue with quantifying worm feeding. We wanted to know if social strains of worms had any advantage in foraging by working together. But we were using fluorescent bacteria which have the issues with high background, which basically means when the worms had apparently eaten all the bacteria, there was still some fluorescence remaining. Karen is Head of the Synthetic Biology group and an expert in bioluminescence and we thought it might make a good alternative to resolve our issue. Because the bacteria need to be alive to produce bioluminescence, when they’re eaten by the worm there is almost no background and samples look totally dark, which makes it so much easier to quantify and measure feeding efficiency”.

The above video is using the fluorescent bacteria which leaves background after the worms have eaten it.


The above video is using the bioluminescent bacteria showing the swarming behaviour of the worms leaving no signal after the bacteria was eaten.


Serena Ding, first author on the publication, discussed the new possibilities and next steps:

“Using the bioluminescent bacteria not only helps us quantify feeding rates between different groups of worms, but also helps us visualise how the worms forage in these large-scale swarming waves. This tool has made it easier for us to interpret the behaviour as well as measure it. We found in this paper that when worms cluster together, they eat food within that cluster first before moving around to forage for more food. This is something that using the bioluminescent bacteria has allowed us to observe, so we could make more informed hypotheses and progress further in the field”.


‘Measuring Caenorhabditis elegans Spatial Foraging and Food Intake Using Bioluminescent Bacteria’ was published in Genetics on 7 January. Read the full article here.