Background: Most synapses release neurotransmitter as transient pulses, but ribbon synapses of sensory neurons support continuous exocytosis in response to maintained stimulation. We have investigated how the movement and retrieval of vesicles might contribute to continuous exocytosis at the ribbon synapse of retinal bipolar cells.
Results: Using a combination of total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy and fluorescence recovery after photobleaching, we found that the great majority of vesicles within 50-120 nm of the plasma membrane move in a random fashion with an effective diffusion coefficient of approximately 1.5 x 10(-2) microm(2) s(-1). Using confocal microscopy, we found that vesicles are similarly mobile across the whole terminal and that this motion is not altered by calcium influx or the actin cytoskeleton. We calculated that the cytoplasmic reservoir of approximately 300,000 vesicles would generate about 900 vesicle collisions/s against ribbons and 28,000 collisions/s against the surface membrane. The efficient resupply of vesicles to ribbons was confirmed by electron microscopy. A 1 min depolarization, releasing 500-1000 vesicles/s, caused a 70% reduction in the number of vesicles docked at the active zone without reducing the number of vesicles attached to ribbons or remote areas of the plasma membrane. These sites were not repopulated by retrieved vesicles because 80-90% of the recycled membrane was taken up into cisternae that pinched off from the surface.
Conclusions: These results indicate that the random motion of cytoplasmic vesicles provides an efficient supply to the ribbon and plasma membrane and allows the maintenance of high rates of exocytosis without an equally rapid recycling of vesicles. The selective depletion of vesicles docked under ribbons suggests that the transfer of vesicles to the active zone limits the rate of exocytosis during maintained stimulation.