Netrin (UNC-6) mediates dendritic self-avoidance.
Dendrites from a single neuron may be highly branched but typically do not overlap. Self-avoidance behavior has been shown to depend on cell-specific membrane proteins that trigger mutual repulsion. Here we report the unexpected discovery that a diffusible cue, the axon guidance protein UNC-6 (Netrin), is required for self-avoidance of sister dendrites from the PVD nociceptive neuron in Caenorhabditis elegans. We used time-lapse imaging to show that dendrites fail to withdraw upon mutual contact in the absence of UNC-6 signaling. We propose a model in which the UNC-40 (Deleted in Colorectal Cancer; DCC) receptor captures UNC-6 at the tips of growing dendrites for interaction with UNC-5 on the apposing branch to induce mutual repulsion. UNC-40 also responds to dendritic contact through another pathway that is independent of UNC-6. Our findings offer a new model for how an evolutionarily conserved morphogenic cue and its cognate receptors can pattern a fundamental feature of dendritic architecture.