Electrical coupling, mediated by gap junctions, contributes to signal averaging, synchronization, and noise reduction in neuronal circuits. In addition, gap junctions may also provide alternative neuronal pathways. However, because they are small and especially difficult to image, gap junctions are often ignored in large-scale 3D reconstructions. Here, we reconstruct gap junctions between photoreceptors in the mouse retina using serial blockface-scanning electron microscopy, focused ion beam-scanning electron microscopy, and confocal microscopy for the gap junction protein Cx36. An exuberant spray of fine telodendria extends from each cone pedicle (including blue cones) to contact 40-50 nearby rod spherules at sites of Cx36 labeling, with approximately 50 Cx36 clusters per cone pedicle and 2-3 per rod spherule. We were unable to detect rod/rod or cone/cone coupling. Thus, rod/cone coupling accounts for nearly all gap junctions between photoreceptors. We estimate a mean of 86 Cx36 channels per rod/cone pair, which may provide a maximum conductance of ~1200 pS, if all gap junction channels were open. This is comparable to the maximum conductance previously measured between rod/cone pairs in the presence of a dopamine antagonist to activate Cx36, suggesting that the open probability of gap junction channels can approach 100% under certain conditions.
Keywords: blue cones; cones; electron microscopy; gap junctions; mouse; neuroscience; retina; rods.
Neurons can talk to each other in two ways: they can send chemical messengers across specialized junctions between two cells, or they can directly pass electrical signals to one another. This latter process is made possible by gap junctions, a system of channel-like structures which connect neighbouring cells and let ions move between them. In most neurons, gap junction channels are made from a specialized protein called connexin 36. Gap junctions are small, difficult to observe, and therefore often ignored by researchers studying neural circuits. In response, Ishibashi et al. focused on nerve cells in the mouse retina, in particular the cones (which detect color during the day) and the rods (which are essential for night vision). Gap junctions between rods and cones allow them to communicate; for example, they enable rod signals to directly activate cones. This provides an alternative route for rod signaling known as the ‘secondary rod pathway’, which seems to be open at night and switches to closed around dawn. Both rods and cones only produce connexin 36, so Ishibashi et al. labeled these proteins with fluorescent tags to pinpoint gap junctions. This showed that each cone makes around 50 gap junctions with nearby rods; however, gap junctions were not detected between cells of the same type. In addition, 3D reconstruction helped to establish the length of each gap junction. Further experiments showed that a typical rod was connected to a cone by about 80 connexin 36 channels. Finally, calculations revealed that the gap junction channels would all need to open to account for the level of electrical activity required for the secondary rod pathway. This suggests that gap junctions may be much more active and important than previously thought. The work by Ishibashi et al. provides a new understanding of the number, size and activity of gap junctions in the retina, potentially paving the way to prevent diseases where light-sensing cells degenerate and cause blindness.