In vision, balance and hearing, sensory receptor cells translate sensory stimuli into electrical signals whose amplitude is graded with stimulus intensity. The output synapses of these sensory neurons must provide fast signaling to follow rapidly changing stimuli while also transmitting graded information covering a wide range of stimulus intensity and must be able to sustain this signaling for long time periods. To meet these demands, specialized machinery for transmitter release, the synaptic ribbon, has evolved at the synaptic outputs of these neurons. We found that acute disruption of synaptic ribbons by photodamage to the ribbon markedly reduced both sustained and transient components of neurotransmitter release in mouse bipolar cells and salamander cones without affecting the ultrastructure of the ribbon or its ability to localize synaptic vesicles to the active zone. Our results indicate that ribbons mediate both slow and fast signaling at sensory synapses and support an additional role for the synaptic ribbon in priming vesicles for exocytosis at active zones.
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