Animals have evolved specialized pathways to detect appropriate food sources and avoid harmful ones. Caenorhabditis elegans can distinguish among the odors of various species of bacteria, its major food source, but little is known about what specific chemical cue or combination of chemical cues C. elegans uses to detect and recognize different microbes. Here, we examine the strong innate attraction of C. elegans for the odor of the pathogenic bacterium, Serratia marcescens. This initial attraction likely facilitates ingestion and infection of the C. elegans host. Using solid-phase microextraction and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, we identify 5 volatile odors released by S. marcescens and identify those that are attractive to C. elegans. We use genetic methods to show that the amphid chemosensory neuron, AWCON, senses both S. marcescens-released 2-butanone and acetone and drives attraction to S. marcescens. In C. elegans, pairing a single odorant with food deprivation results in a reduced attractive response for that specific odor. We find that pairing the natural odor of S. marcescens with food deprivation results in a reduced attraction for the natural odor of S. marcescens and a similar reduced attraction for the synthetic blend of acetone and 2-butanone. This result indicates that only 2 odorants represent the more complex odor bouquet of S. marcescens. Although bacterial-released volatiles have long been known to be attractive to C. elegans, this study defines for the first time specific volatile cues that represent a particular bacterium to C. elegans.

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