To understand the elementary unit of synaptic communication between CNS neurons, one must know what causes the variability of quantal postsynaptic currents and whether unitary packets of transmitter saturate postsynaptic receptors. We studied single excitatory synapses between hippocampal neurons in culture. Focal glutamate application at individual postsynaptic sites evoked currents (I(glu)) with little variability compared with quantal excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs). The maximal I(glu) was >2-fold larger than the median EPSC. Thus, variations in [glu]cleft are the main source of variability in EPSC size, and glutamate receptors are generally far from saturation during quantal transmission. This conclusion was verified by molecular antagonism experiments in hippocampal cultures and slices. The general lack of glutamate receptor saturation leaves room for increases in [glu]cleft as a mechanism for synaptic plasticity.