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

Direct visualization of trans-synaptic neurexin-neuroligin interactions during synapse formation.

PMID 25378172


Neurexins and neuroligins are synaptic cell-adhesion molecules that are essential for normal synapse specification and function and are thought to bind to each other trans-synaptically, but such interactions have not been demonstrated directly. Here, we generated neurexin-1β and neuroligin-1 and neuroligin-2 fusion proteins containing complementary "split" GFP fragments positioned such that binding of neurexin-1β to neuroligin-1 or neuroligin-2 allowed GFP reconstitution without dramatically changing their binding affinities. GFP fluorescence was only reconstituted from split-GFP-modified neurexin-1β and neuroligin-1 if and after neurexin-1β bound to its neuroligin partner; reassociation of the split-GFP components with each other did not mediate binding. Using trans-cellular reconstitution of GFP fluorescence from split-GFP-modified neurexin-1β and neuroligins as an assay, we demonstrate that trans-synaptic neurexin/neuroligin binding indeed occurred when mouse hippocampal neurons formed synapses onto non-neuronal COS-7 cells expressing neuroligins or when mouse hippocampal neurons formed synapses with each other. This visualization of synapses by neurexin/neuroligin binding prompted us to refer to this approach as "SynView." Our data demonstrate that neurexin-1β forms a trans-synaptic complex with neuroligin-1 and neuroligin-2 and that this interaction can be used to label synapses in a specific fashion in vivo.