Synthetic ablations in the C. elegans nervous system

Emma K. Towlson and Albert-László Barabási

Network Neuroscience


"Synthetic lethality" in cell biology is an extreme example of the effects of higher order genetic interactions: The simultaneous knockout of two or more individually nonessential genes leads to cell death. We define a neural analog to this concept in relation to the locomotor response to gentle touch in C. elegans. Two or more neurons are synthetic essential if individually they are not required for this behavior, yet their combination is. We employ a network control approach to systematically assess all pairs and triplets of neurons by their effect on body wall muscle controllability, and find that only surprisingly small sets of neurons are synthetic essential. They are highly localized in the nervous system and predicted to affect control over specific sets of muscles.