The fate of tetanus toxin (mol wt 150,000) subsequent to its retrograde axonal transport in peripheral sympathetic neurons of the rat was studied by both electron microscope autoradiography and cytochemistry using toxin-horseradish peroxidase (HRP) coupling products, and compared to that of nerve growth factor (NGF), cholera toxin, and the lectins wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), phytohaemagglutinin (PHA), and ricin. All these macromolecules are taken up by adrenergic nerve terminals and transported retrogradely in a selective, highly efficient manner. This selective uptake and transport is a consequence of the binding of these macromolecules to specific receptive sites on the nerve terminal membrane. All these ligands are transported in the axons within smooth vesicles, cisternae, and tubules. In the cell bodies these membrane compartments fuse and most of the transported macromolecules are finally incorporated into lysosomes. The cell nuclei, the parallel golgi cisternae, and the extracellular space always remain unlabeled. In case the tetanus toxin, however, a substantial fraction of the labeled material appears in presynaptic cholinergic nerve terminals which innervate the labeled ganglion cells. In these terminals tetanus toxin-HRP is localized in 500-1,000 A diam vesicles. In contrast, such a retrograde transsynaptic transfer is not at all or only very rarely detectable after retrograde transport of cholera toxin, NGF, WGA, PHA, or ricin. An atoxic fragment of the tetanus toxin, which contains the ganglioside-binding site, behaves like intact toxin. With all these macromolecules, the extracellular space and the glial cells in the ganglion remain unlabeled. We conclude that the selectivity of this transsynaptic transfer of tetanus toxin is due to a selective release of the toxin from the postsynaptic dendrites. This release is immediately followed by an uptake into the presynaptic terminals.

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