Electroplaques dissected from the electric organ of Electrophorus electricus are labeled by tritiated alpha1-isotoxin from Naja nigricollis, a highly selective reagent of the cholinergic (nicotinic) receptor site. Preincubation of the cell with an excess of unlabeled alpha-toxin and with a covalent affinity reagent or labeling in the presence of 10(-4) M decamethonium reduces the binding of [3H]alpha-toxin by at least 75%. Absolute surface densities of alpha-toxin sites are estimated by high-resolution autoradiography on the basis of silver grain distribution and taking into account the complex geopmetry of the cell surface. Binding of [3H]alpha-toxin on the noninnervated face does not differ from background. Labeled sites are observed on the innervated membrane both between the synapses and under the nerve terminals but the density of sites is approx. 100 times higher at the level of the synapses than in between. Analysis of the distance of silver grains from the innervated membrane shows a symmetrical distribution centered on the postsynaptic plasma membrane under the nerve terminal. In extrasynaptic areas, the barycenter of the distribution lies approximately 0.5 micrometer inside the cell, indicating that alpha-toxin sites are present on the membrane of microinvaginations, or caveolae, abundant in the extrajunctional areas. An absolute density of 49,600 +/- 16,000 sites/micrometer2 of postsynaptic membrane is calculated; it is in the range of that found at the crest of the folds at the neuromuscular junction and expected from a close packing of receptor molecules. Electric organs were denervated for periods up to 142 days. Nerve transmission fails after 2 days, and within a week all the nerve terminals disappear and are subsequently replaced by Schwann cell processes, whereas the morphology of the electroplaque remains unaffected. The denervated electroplaque develops some of the electrophysiological changes found with denervated muscles (increases of membrane resting resistance, decrease of electrical excitability) but does not become hypersensitive to cholinergic agonists. Autoradiography of electroplaques dissected from denervated electric organs reveals, after labeling with [3H]alpha-toxin, patches of silver grains with a surface density close to that found in the normal electroplaque. The density of alpha-toxin binding sites in extrasynaptic areas remains close to that observed on innervated cells, confirming that denervation does not cause an increase in the number of cholinergic receptor sites. The patches have the same distribution, shape,and dimensions as in subneural areas of the normal electroplaque, and remnants of nerve terminal or Schwann cells are often found at the level of the patches. They most likely correspond to subsynaptic areas which persist with the same density of [3H]alpha-toxin sites up to 52 days after denervation. In the adult synapse, therefore, the receptor protein exhibits little if any tendency for lateral diffusion.

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