The vertebrate neuromuscular junction (NMJ) remains the best-studied model for understanding the mechanisms involved in synaptogenesis, due to its relatively large size, its simplicity of patterning, and its unparalleled experimental accessibility. During neuromuscular development, each skeletal myofiber secretes and deposits around its extracellular surface an assemblage of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins that ultimately form a basal lamina. This is also the case at the NMJ, where the motor nerve contributes additional factors. Before most of the current molecular components were known, it was clear that the synaptic ECM of adult skeletal muscles was unique in composition and contained factors sufficient to induce the differentiation of both pre- and postsynaptic membranes. Biochemical, genetic, and microscopy studies have confirmed that agrin, laminin (221, 421, and 521), collagen IV (α3-α6), collagen XIII, perlecan, and the ColQ-bound form of acetylcholinesterase are all synaptic ECM proteins with important roles in neuromuscular development. The roles of their many potential receptors and/or binding proteins have been more difficult to assess at the genetic level due to the complexity of membrane interactions with these large proteins, but roles for MuSK-LRP4 in agrin signaling and for integrins, dystroglycan, and voltage-gated calcium channels in laminin-dependent phenotypes have been identified. Synaptic ECM proteins and their receptors are involved in almost all aspects of synaptic development, including synaptic initiation, topography, ultrastructure, maturation, stability, and transmission.
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