Rab3A is a small GTP-binding protein highly concentrated on synaptic vesicles. Like other small GTP-binding proteins it is thought to cycle between a soluble and a membrane-associated state. To determine at which stage of the life cycle of synaptic vesicles rab3A is associated with their membranes, the localization of the protein in neurons and neuroendocrine cells at different developmental and functional stages was investigated. In all cases, rab3A was colocalized with synaptic vesicle markers at the cell periphery, but was absent from the Golgi area, suggesting that rab3A associates with vesicles distally to the Golgi complex and dissociates from vesicle membranes before they recycle to this region. Immunofluorescence experiments carried out on frog motor end plates demonstrated that massive exocytosis of synaptic vesicles is accompanied by a translocation of rab3A to the cell surface. The selective localization of rab3A on synaptic vesicles at stages preceding their fusion with the plasmalemma suggests that the protein is part of a regulatory machinery that is assembled onto the vesicles in preparation for exocytosis.

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