Synaptic transmission is characterized by fast, tightly coupled processes and complex signaling pathways that require a distinctly non-random spatial organization of their components. Nanoscale organization of synaptic proteins at glutamatergic synapses was suggested to regulate synaptic plasticity, the process underlying learning and memory. Specifically, direct colocalization of pre- and postsynaptic proteins implicated that the alignment of neurotransmitter release sites with neurotransmitter receptors enables maximal synaptic response. However, direct visualization and the mechanistic understanding of this alignment is lacking. Here we used cryo-electron tomography to visualize synaptic complexes in their native environment with the full complement of their interacting partners, synaptic vesicles and plasma membranes on 2-4 nanometer scale. The application of our recent template-free detection and classification procedure showed that tripartite trans-synaptic assemblies (subcolumns) link synaptic vesicles to postsynaptic receptors, and established that a particular displacement between directly interacting complexes characterizes subcolumns. Furthermore, we obtained de novo average structures of ionotropic glutamate receptors in their physiological composition, embedded in lipid membranes. The data presented support the hypothesis that synaptic function is carried by precisely organized trans-synaptic units. It complements superresolution findings and provides a framework for further exploration of synaptic and other large molecular assemblies that link different cells or cellular regions and may require weak or transient interactions to exert their function.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience