The neuromuscular junction (NMJ) of Drosophila melanogaster has been established as a productive model for the study of synaptogenesis, synaptic plasticity, vesicle recycling, and other synaptic functions in embryos and larvae. It also has potential for the study of long-term plasticity during adult life and degenerative processes associated with aging. Here we provide a detailed description of the morphology and ultrastructure of the NMJ on abdominal dorsal longitudinal muscles throughout adult life from eclosion to senescence. In contrast to the case in the larva, the predominant type of terminals in these muscles in the adult fly consists of only two or three branches with tightly packed synaptic boutons. We observed qualitative and quantitative changes as mean bouton size increased gradually during adulthood, and the largest boutons were present in the old fly. The length of nerve branches first increased and thereafter decreased gradually during most of adult life. Branch diameter also decreased progressively, but branch number did not change. The subsynaptic reticulum became progressively thinner, and "naked" boutons were found in old flies. Ultrastructural traits gave indications of an age-associated increment in autophagy, larger synaptic vesicles, and impaired endocytosis. We propose that NMJ aging in the fly correlates with impaired endocytosis and membrane dynamics. This view finds a functional correlate in flies carrying a temperature-sensitive mutation in shibire that reversible blocks endocytosis; age significantly reduces the time required for complete paralysis and increases the time of recovery, thus confirming the age-dependent alteration in vesicle dynamics.
(c) 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.