While the basic functioning of the nervous system of Caenorhabditis elegans has been extensively studied, its behavioural plasticities have not been fully explored because of the limited availability of assay systems. We report here a simple form of chemotaxis plasticity in this organism: when worms are starved on plates that contain NaCl, their chemotaxis towards NaCl falls dramatically. This conditioning requires both the presence of NaCl and the absence of a bacterial food source, indicating that it is not merely adaptation or habituation, but that it is likely to be a form of associative learning. While chemotaxis towards volatile chemoattractants does not change significantly after conditioning with NaCl, chemotaxis towards other water-soluble attractants does decrease. This suggests that an altered response of a cell or a group of cells specifically involved in chemotaxis towards water-soluble chemoattractants is responsible for the behavioural alteration. The decrease in chemotaxis occurred slowly over 3–4 h of conditioning and returned quickly to the original level when either of the conditioning stimuli, NaCl or starvation, was removed. The application of serotonin partially blocked this reduction in chemotaxis, consistent with the proposed function of this neurotransmitter in food signalling. Using this assay, we have isolated three mutants with reduced plasticity. This assay system expands the opportunities for studying the molecular and cellular mechanisms of behavioural plasticity in C. elegans.

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