To examine the role of key cholinergic proteins in the formation of neuromuscular junctions (NMJs), we expressed DNAs encoding the mouse muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) or human brain and muscle acetylcholinesterase (hAChE) in developing Xenopus laevis embryos. Acetylthiocholine hydrolysis and alpha-bungarotoxin binding in homogenates of transgenic embryos revealed transient overexpression of the respective proteins for at least 4 days postfertilization. Moreover, hAChE injection induced an approximately 2-fold increase in endogenous Xenopus nAChR. Electron microscopy coupled with cytochemical staining for AChE activity revealed that AChE-stained areas, which reached 0.17 microns2 in NMJs of control embryos raised at 21 degrees C, increased up to 0.53 and 0.60 microns2 in nAChR and hAChE transgenics, respectively. These increases coincided with the appearance of a class of large NMJs with average postsynaptic lengths up to 1.8-fold greater than controls. As much as 57% and 34% of the NMJs in animals transgenic for nAChR and hAChE, respectively, displayed AChE activity in nerve terminals in addition to muscle labeling, as compared with 10% nerve-labeled NMJs in control animals. Moreover, area, but not length values, were > 2-fold larger in hAChE-expressing NMJs labeled in their nerve terminals than in those labeled in muscle alone, reflecting a hAChE-induced increase in synaptic cleft width. These findings indicate that modulation of cholinergic neurotransmission in NMJs modifies the features of nerve-muscle connections.
Transgenic engineering of neuromuscular junctions in Xenopus laevis embryos transiently overexpressing key cholinergic proteins
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