Mature rod and cone photoreceptor cells extend terminals to the outer plexiform layer (OPL), where they form characteristic spherules or pedicles, synapsing with the second-order neurons of the inner nuclear layer (INL). The present study demonstrates that, prior to the formation of this connectivity, immature rods and cones in the ferret extend processes beyond the level of the horizontal cells and future OPL, reaching the inner plexiform layer (IPL). The number of processes extending to the IPL increases steadily as the population of photoreceptor cells expands postnatally, reaching a maximum 2 weeks after birth. These processes are immunopositive for synaptophysin, and they terminate in two strata occupied by the dendrites of amacrine cells and ganglion cells. The frequency of these processes declines rapidly during the third postnatal week, and they are no longer detectable by the fourth postnatal week. Their loss is neither a consequence of photoreceptor cell death nor is it due to selective protein trafficking mechanisms that render them immunonegative. Rather, these processes retract to the level of the OPL during this period, coincident with the maturation of bipolar and horizontal cell processes. These results demonstrate that, despite the clear presence of environmental signals presaging the formation of the OPL, photoreceptor terminals initially ignore them to grow beyond this level of the retina. Rather, they detect and respond to signals within the IPL during this period, terminating in proximity to the processes of other cells in the inner retina, where they may contribute to transient retinal circuitry during early development.
Copyright 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.