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As key functional units in neural circuits, different types of neuronal synapses play distinct roles in brain information processing, learning, and memory. Synaptic abnormalities are believed to underlie various neurological and psychiatric disorders. Here, by combining cryo-electron tomography and cryo-correlative light and electron microscopy, we distinguished intact excitatory and inhibitory synapses of cultured hippocampal neurons, and visualized the in situ 3D organization of synaptic organelles and macromolecules in their native state. Quantitative analyses of >100 synaptic tomograms reveal that excitatory synapses contain a mesh-like postsynaptic density (PSD) with thickness ranging from 20 to 50 nm. In contrast, the PSD in inhibitory synapses assumes a thin sheet-like structure ∼12 nm from the postsynaptic membrane. On the presynaptic side, spherical synaptic vesicles (SVs) of 25-60 nm diameter and discus-shaped ellipsoidal SVs of various sizes coexist in both synaptic types, with more ellipsoidal ones in inhibitory synapses. High-resolution tomograms obtained using a Volta phase plate and electron filtering and counting reveal glutamate receptor-like and GABAA receptor-like structures that interact with putative scaffolding and adhesion molecules, reflecting details of receptor anchoring and PSD organization. These results provide an updated view of the ultrastructure of excitatory and inhibitory synapses, and demonstrate the potential of our approach to gain insight into the organizational principles of cellular architecture underlying distinct synaptic functions.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT To understand functional properties of neuronal synapses, it is desirable to analyze their structure at molecular resolution. We have developed an integrative approach combining cryo-electron tomography and correlative fluorescence microscopy to visualize 3D ultrastructural features of intact excitatory and inhibitory synapses in their native state. Our approach shows that inhibitory synapses contain uniform thin sheet-like postsynaptic densities (PSDs), while excitatory synapses contain previously known mesh-like PSDs. We discovered "discus-shaped" ellipsoidal synaptic vesicles, and their distributions along with regular spherical vesicles in synaptic types are characterized. High-resolution tomograms further allowed identification of putative neurotransmitter receptors and their heterogeneous interaction with synaptic scaffolding proteins. The specificity and resolution of our approach enables precise in situ analysis of ultrastructural organization underlying distinct synaptic functions.

Original publication

DOI

10.1523/jneurosci.1548-17.2017

Type

Journal article

Journal

The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience

Publication Date

02/2018

Volume

38

Pages

1493 - 1510

Addresses

National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at the Microscale.