Vesicles filled with neurotransmitters touch the cell membrane, thereby enabling their rapid-fire release
While neurons rapidly propagate information in their interior via electrical signals, they communicate with each other at special contact points known as the synapses. Chemical messenger substances, the neurotransmitters, are stored in vesicles at the synapses.
When a synapse becomes active, some of these vesicles fuse with the cell membrane and release their contents. To ensure that valuable time is not lost, synapses always have some readily releasable vesicles on standby. With the help of high-resolution, three-dimensional electron microscopy, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen succeeded in demonstrating that these fusionable vesicles have a very special characteristic: they already have close contact with the cell membrane long before the actual fusion occurs. In addition, the research team also decoded the molecular machinery that facilitates the operation of this docking mechanism.
The fusion of the neurotransmitter vesicles with the cell membrane involves close cooperation between numerous protein components, which monitor each other and ensure that every single ‘participant’ is always in the right place. This is referred to as the fusion machinery and the comparison is an apt one: if a cogwheel in a clock mechanism is broken, the hands do not move. In a similar way, faulty or missing molecules impair synaptic operations.
In research studies carried out some years ago, Nils Brose and his colleague JeongSeop Rhee from the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen already demonstrated that the transmission of information at the synapses in genetically modified mice, in which all known genes of the Munc13 or CAPS proteins had been switched off, is severely defective.
Although the neurons of the genetically modified mice do not differ from those of healthy mice when examined under an optical microscope, if Munc13 is missing, the release of neurotransmitters actually grinds to a halt completely. Brose and Rhee’s findings showed that to be able to react immediately to signals at all times, each synapse must keep a small number of ‘readily releasable’ fusionable vesicles on standby.
But how do Munc13 and CAPS convert the vesicles to this kind of fusionable state? To answer this question, the Göttingen-based scientists studied the synaptic contacts in the minutest possible detail. To do this, neurobiologists Cordelia Imig and Ben Cooper, who have been working with Brose and Rhee for many years, used a high-pressure freezing process.
This involves the rapid freezing of neurons in the brain tissue under high pressure so that no disruptive ice crystals are formed and the fine structure of the cells is particularly well conserved. The samples obtained in this way were then analysed using electron tomography. Using this method, electron microscope images of a structure are recorded from many different angles, in a similar way to the process used in medical computed tomography. The individual images can then be combined on the computer to give a high-resolution three-dimensional image – of a synapse in this case (see image).
“Our results showed that readily releasable vesicles in healthy synapses touch the cell membrane,” explains Cooper. “However, if Munc13 and CAPS proteins are missing, the vesicles do not reach the active zone and accumulate a few nanometres away from it.” To their astonishment, the researchers also observed that SNARE proteins, which collaborate with Munc13 and CAPS in the nerve endings, are also involved in this docking process. SNARE proteins are found in the cell and vesicle membranes of healthy synapses and control the fusion of the two membranes during neurotransmitter release.
When a vesicle approaches the cell membrane, the individual SNARE molecules line up opposite each other like the sides of a zip and pull the membranes close to each other in this way. The vesicles await the starting gun for their fusion in this state – in the starting blocks, so to speak.
The findings of the neurobiologists in Göttingen prove that Munc13, CAPS and SNARE proteins closely align the vesicle and cell membrane in the synapse, long before the signal for fusion is given. This is the only way that the fast and controlled transmission of information at the synapse can be guaranteed, thanks to which we can react specifically to information from our environment. “It had long been clear that synapses have to be extremely fast to carry out all of the many complex brain functions.
Our study shows for the first time how this is managed at the molecular level and on the level of the synaptic vesicles,” says Brose. Because almost all of the protein components involved in this process also play a role in neurological and psychiatric diseases, the Göttingen-based scientists believe that their discovery will soon benefit medical research.
Prof. Dr. Nils Brose | Max-Planck-Institute
World’s Largest Study on Allergic Rhinitis Reveals new Risk Genes
17.07.2018 | Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt
Plant mothers talk to their embryos via the hormone auxin
17.07.2018 | Institute of Science and Technology Austria
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.
Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
17.07.2018 | Information Technology
17.07.2018 | Materials Sciences
17.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering