Accumulation of protein aggregates are a major hallmark of progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes expressing the human synaptic protein α-synuclein in body wall muscle show inclusions of aggregated protein, which affects similar genetic pathways as in humans. It is not however known how the effects of α-synuclein expression in C. elegans differs among genetic backgrounds. Here, we compared gene expression patterns and investigated the phenotypic consequences of transgenic α-synuclein expression in five different C. elegans genetic backgrounds. Results Transcriptome analysis indicates that α-synuclein expression effects pathways associated with nutrient storage, lipid transportation and ion exchange and that effects vary depending on the genetic background. These gene expression changes predict that a range of phenotypes will be affected by α-synuclein expression. We confirm this, showing that α-synuclein expression delayed development, reduced lifespan, increased rate of matricidal hatching, and slows pharyngeal pumping. Critically, these phenotypic effects depend on the genetic background and coincide with the core changes in gene expression. Conclusions Together, our results show genotype-specific effects and core alterations in both gene expression and in phenotype in response to α-synuclein expression. We conclude that the effects of α-synuclein expression are substantially modified by the genetic background, illustrating that genetic background needs to be considered in C. elegans models of neurodegenerative disease.