Caenorhabditis elegans processes sensory information to choose between freeloading and self-defense strategies

Hydrogen peroxide is the preeminent chemical weapon that organisms use for combat. Individual cells rely on conserved defenses to prevent and repair peroxide-induced damage, but whether similar defenses might be coordinated across cells in animals remains poorly understood. Here, we identify a neuronal circuit in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans that processes information perceived by two sensory neurons to control the induction of hydrogen peroxide defenses in the organism. We found that catalases produced by Escherichia coli, the nematode’s food source, can deplete hydrogen peroxide from the local environment and thereby protect the nematodes. In the presence of E.coli, the nematode’s neurons signal via TGFβ-insulin/IGF1 relay to target tissues to repress expression of catalases and other hydrogen peroxide defenses. This adaptive strategy is the first example of a multicellular organism modulating its defenses when it expects to freeload from the protection provided by molecularly orthologous defenses from another species.