Molecular profiling reveals synaptic release machinery in Merkel cells

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Oct 5;101(40):14503-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0406308101. Epub 2004 Sep 24.


Merkel cell-neurite complexes are somatosensory receptors that initiate the perception of gentle touch. The role of epidermal Merkel cells within these complexes is disputed. To ask whether Merkel cells are genetically programmed to be excitable cells that may participate in touch reception, we purified Merkel cells from touch domes and used DNA microarrays to compare gene expression in Merkel cells and other epidermal cells. We identified 362 Merkel-cell-enriched transcripts, including neuronal transcription factors, presynaptic molecules, and ion-channel subunits. Antibody staining of skin sections showed that Merkel cells are immunoreactive for presynaptic proteins, including piccolo, Rab3C, vesicular glutamate transporter 2, and cholecystokinin 26-33. These data indicate that Merkel cells are poised to release glutamate and neuropeptides. Finally, by using Ca(2+) imaging, we discovered that Merkel cells have L- and P/Q-type voltage-gated Ca(2+) channels, which have been shown to trigger vesicle release at synapses. These results demonstrate that Merkel cells are excitable cells and suggest that they release neurotransmitters to shape touch sensitivity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Separation
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Ion Channels / genetics
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular
  • Merkel Cells / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / genetics
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis
  • Synaptic Transmission
  • Transcription Factors / genetics


  • Ion Channels
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Transcription Factors