The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) transports nutrients and metabolites between the microvascular bed that maintains the outer retina and photoreceptor neurons. The RPE removes photoreceptor outer segments (POS) by receptor-mediated phagocytosis, a process that peaks in the morning. Uptake and degradation of POS initiates signaling cascades in the RPE. Upstream stimuli from various metabolic activities converge on mechanistic target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1), and aberrant mTORC1 signaling is implicated in aging and age-related degeneration of the RPE. We measured mTORC1-mediated responses to RPE phagocytosis in vivo and in vitro. During the morning burst of POS shedding, there was transient activation of mTORC1-mediated signaling in the RPE. POS activated mTORC1 through lysosome-independent mechanisms, and engulfed POS served as a docking platform for mTORC1 assembly. The identification of POS as endogenous stimuli of mTORC1 in the RPE provides a mechanistic link underlying the photoreceptor-RPE interaction in the outer retina.
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