Ribbon synapses of cochlear inner hair cells (IHCs) undergo molecular assembly and extensive functional and structural maturation before hearing onset. Here, we characterized the nanostructure of IHC synapses from late prenatal mouse embryo stages (embryonic days 14-18) into adulthood [postnatal day (P)48] using electron microscopy and tomography as well as optical nanoscopy of apical turn organs of Corti. We find that synaptic ribbon precursors arrive at presynaptic active zones (AZs) after afferent contacts have been established. These ribbon precursors contain the proteins RIBEYE and piccolino, tether synaptic vesicles and their delivery likely involves active, microtubule-based transport pathways. Synaptic contacts undergo a maturational transformation from multiple small to one single, large AZ. This maturation is characterized by the fusion of ribbon precursors with membrane-anchored ribbons that also appear to fuse with each other. Such fusion events are most frequently encountered around P12 and hence, coincide with hearing onset in mice. Thus, these events likely underlie the morphological and functional maturation of the AZ. Moreover, the postsynaptic densities appear to undergo a similar refinement alongside presynaptic maturation. Blockwise addition of ribbon material by fusion as found during AZ maturation might represent a general mechanism for modulating ribbon size.
Keywords: presynaptic development; ribbon synapse maturation; synaptic heterogeneity; synaptogenesis.