Being able to sense harm is essential for survival. Animals have to be able to tell the difference between a gentle touch and a dangerous pressure. They do this using nerve cells called mechanical nociceptors which switch on when the body feels a potentially painful pressure, such as a sharp object poking the skin. Once activated, the nerves send outputs to other parts of the central nervous system which coordinate the motions needed to escape the source of the pain.
One popular model to understand harm-sensing is the larvae of fruit flies which automatically roll back and forth when they sense the pointy sting of a wasp. This process is initiated by sensory nerve cells called class IV dendritic arborization neurons (or c4da for short) which sit under the fly’s skin. However, it is still not fully understood how these mechanical nociceptors detect the poking forces of the wasp’s tail.
To investigate, Liu, Wu et al. built a device that could poke sections of fly larvae under a microscope so they could see how different types of pressure affected the activity and shape of c4da cells. This revealed that c4da nerves were most sensitive to sharp objects that illicit a more localized force, which may explain why these cells are so good at responding to wasp attacks.
Further analysis showed that this sensitivity was due to the high number of branches, or dendrites, protruding from the body of c4da nerves. Liu, Wu et al. discovered that the dendrites were coated in a touch-sensitive protein that can sense and amplify both squashing and pulling, resulting in a signal that activates c4da nerves to send outputs to other parts of the central nervous system. This mechanism increases the likelihood that a c4da cell will detect a mechanical pressure even if it is far away from the body of the nerve.
These findings shed light on how sensory cells like c4da are optimized to carry out specific roles. This could be important for understanding other nerve systems which sense mechanical pressure, such as those involved in touch or auditory processes. However, further work is needed to see whether the molecules and mechanism identified by Liu, Wu et al. are also present in humans.