Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA.
The mec-5 and mec-9 genes encode putative extracellular proteins that allow a set of six touch receptor neurons in C. elegans to respond to gentle touch. MEC-5 is a collagen made by the epidermal cells that surround the touch cells. Mutations causing touch insensitivity affect the Gly-X-Y repeats of this collagen. mec-9 produces two transcripts, the larger of which is expressed in the touch cells and two PVD neurons. This transcript encodes a protein with 5 Kunitz-type protease inhibitor domains, 6 EGF-like repeats (2 of the Ca(2+)-binding type), and a glutamic acid-rich region. Missense mutations causing touch insensitivity affect both the EGF-like and Kunitz domains. Since mec-9 loss of function mutations dominantly enhance the touch insensitive phenotype of several mec-5 mutations, MEC-5 and MEC-9 may interact. We propose that these proteins provide an extracellular attachment point for the mechanosensory channels of the touch cells.