A conserved metalloprotease mediates ecdysis in Caenorhabditis elegans.
Molting is required for progression between larval stages in the life cycle of nematodes. We have identified four mutant alleles of a Caenorhabditis elegans metalloprotease gene, nas-37, that cause incomplete ecdysis. At each molt the cuticle fails to open sufficiently at the anterior end and the partially shed cuticle is dragged behind the animal. The gene is expressed in hypodermal cells 4 hours before ecdysis during all larval stages. The NAS-37 protein accumulates in the anterior cuticle and is shed in the cuticle after ecdysis. This pattern of protein accumulation places NAS-37 in the right place and at the right time to degrade the cuticle to facilitate ecdysis. The nas-37 gene has orthologs in other nematode species, including parasitic nematodes, and they undergo a similar shedding process. For example, Haemonchus contortus molts by digesting a ring of cuticle at the tip of the nose. Incubating Haemonchus larvae in extracted exsheathing fluids causes a refractile ring of digested cuticle to form at the tip of the nose. When Haemonchus cuticles are incubated with purified NAS-37, a similar refractile ring forms. NAS-37 degradation of the Haemonchus cuticle suggests that the metalloproteases and the cuticle substrates involved in exsheathment of parasitic nematodes are conserved in free-living nematodes.