The recycling of synaptic vesicles in nerve terminals is thought to involve clathrin-coated vesicles. However, the properties of nerve terminal coated vesicles have not been characterized. Starting from a preparation of purified nerve terminals obtained from rat brain, we isolated clathrin-coated vesicles by a series of differential and density gradient centrifugation steps. The enrichment of coated vesicles during fractionation was monitored by EM. The final fraction consisted of greater than 90% of coated vesicles, with only negligible contamination by synaptic vesicles. Control experiments revealed that the contribution by coated vesicles derived from the axo-dendritic region or from nonneuronal cells is minimal. The membrane composition of nerve terminal-derived coated vesicles was very similar to that of synaptic vesicles, containing the membrane proteins synaptophysin, synaptotagmin, p29, synaptobrevin and the 116-kD subunit of the vacuolar proton pump, in similar stoichiometric ratios. The small GTP-binding protein rab3A was absent, probably reflecting its dissociation from synaptic vesicles during endocytosis. Immunogold EM revealed that virtually all coated vesicles carried synaptic vesicle proteins, demonstrating that the contribution by coated vesicles derived from other membrane traffic pathways is negligible. Coated vesicles isolated from the whole brain exhibited a similar composition, most of them carrying synaptic vesicle proteins. This indicates that in nervous tissue, coated vesicles function predominantly in the synaptic vesicle pathway. Nerve terminal-derived coated vesicles contained AP-2 adaptor complexes, which is in agreement with their plasmalemmal origin. Furthermore, the neuron-specific coat proteins AP 180 and auxilin, as well as the alpha a1 and alpha c1-adaptins, were enriched in this fraction, suggesting a function for these coat proteins in synaptic vesicle recycling.

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