Molecular phenotyping of retinal ganglion cells

J Neurosci. 2002 Jan 15;22(2):413-27. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.22-02-00413.2002.


Classifying all of the ganglion cells in the mammalian retina has long been a goal of anatomists, physiologists, and cell biologists. The rabbit retinal ganglion cell layer was phenotyped using intrinsic small molecule signals (aspartate, glutamate, glycine, glutamine, GABA, and taurine) and glutamate receptor-gated 1-amino-4-guanidobutane excitation signals as the clustering dimensions for formal classification. Intrinsic signals alone yielded 7 ganglion cell superclasses and 1 amacrine cell superclass; the addition of excitation signals ultimately resolved 14 natural ganglion cell classes and 3 amacrine cell classes. Ganglion cells comprise two-thirds to three-quarters of the cells in the ganglion cell layer and exhibited distinct metabolic, coupling, and excitation phenotypes, as well as characteristic sizes, population fractions, and patterns. Metabolic signatures (mixtures of glutamate, aspartate, glutamine, and GABA) chemically discriminated ganglion from amacrine cells. Coupling signatures reflected heterologous coupling states across ganglion cells: (1) uncoupled, (2) coupled to GABAergic amacrine cells, and (3) coupled to glycinergic amacrine cells. Excitation signatures reflected differential channel permeation rates across classes after AMPA activation. Extraction of unique size and patterning features from the data sets further validated the robustness of the classification. Because the classifications were explicitly blinded to structure, this is strong evidence that molecular phenotype classes are natural classes. Correspondences of molecular phenotype classes to functional classes were inferred from size, coupling, encounter, and physiological attributes. Ganglion cell classes display markedly different ionotropic drives, which may partly explain the physiological brisk-sluggish spectrum of ganglion cell spiking patterns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agmatine / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Cell Count
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Glutamine / metabolism
  • Glycine / metabolism
  • Image Cytometry / methods
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Male
  • Phenotype
  • Rabbits
  • Receptors, Glutamate / metabolism
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / classification*
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / cytology
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / drug effects
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Taurine / metabolism
  • alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic Acid / pharmacology
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Receptors, Glutamate
  • Glutamine
  • Taurine
  • Aspartic Acid
  • Glutamic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Agmatine
  • alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic Acid
  • Glycine