Muscle contraction is normally mediated by the release of neurotransmitters from motor neurons. Here we demonstrate that protons can act as a direct transmitter from intestinal cells to stimulate muscle contraction. During the C. elegans defecation motor program the posterior body muscles contract even in the absence of neuronal inputs or vesicular neurotransmission. In this study, we demonstrate that the space between the intestine and the muscle is acidified just prior to muscle contraction and that the release of caged protons is sufficient to induce muscle contraction. PBO-4 is a putative Na+/H+ ion exchanger expressed on the basolateral membrane of the intestine, juxtaposed to the posterior body muscles. In pbo-4 mutants the extracellular space is not acidified and the muscles fail to contract. The pbo-5 and pbo-6 genes encode subunits of a "cys-loop" proton-gated cation channel required for muscles to respond to acidification. In heterologous expression assays the PBO receptor is half-maximally activated at a pH of 6.8. The identification of the mechanisms for release and reception of proton signals establishes a highly unusual mechanism for intercellular communication.
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