Synaptic vesicles (SV) near the synapse (Y) of the earthworm.


When the Journal of Cell Biology was born, in 1955, electron microscopy (EM) was a new but booming source of biological information. As George Palade stated, “the then dormant field of biological morphology” was now undergoing “a period of intense activity, reminiscent of a gold rush … only filaments, membranes, and particles have taken the place of more conventional nuggets.”

The inadequate reproduction of EM images in existing journals was one of the driving forces for founding the Journal, which until 1962 was called the Journal of Biophysical and Biochemical Cytology. Many of the best papers in those first years came from just looking—and having the ability to interpret what all those fuzzy blotches might mean.

A prime example came in the first issue (De Robertis and Bennett, 1955). The synapse had been named in 1897, and by the early 1900s Ramón y Cajal had proposed his neuron doctrine, which predicted that pre- and post-synaptic structures would be constructed from distinct cells that did not show cytoplasmic continuity with each other. Early EMs of synapses in 1953 had largely confirmed this prediction, but it was not until a pair of papers from Palade and Palay (1954) and De Robertis and Bennett (1955) that the messengers of the synapse—synaptic vesicles—were first recognized.

De Robertis and Bennett felt these vesicles “to be of interest and worthy of further study” but cautioned that “no general conclusions [were] warranted.” They did, however, make the connection between what they saw and the particulate or granular fractions that in other papers had been found to contain acetylcholine and catecholamines. In a paper the following year, Palay (1956) was even more explicit in proposing that the vesicles visible by EM were the structural source of the miniature, spontaneous pulses reported in a series of papers in 1954. Thus the hypothesis of quantal transmitter release now had a structural correlate.

De Robertis, E.D.P., and H.S. Bennett.
J. Biophys. Biochem. Cytol.

Palade, G.E., and S.L. Palay.
Anat. Rec.

Palay, S.L.
J. Biophys. Biochem. Cytol.