The sequence of structural changes that occur during synaptic vesicle exocytosis was studied by quick-freezing muscles at different intervals after stimulating their nerves, in the presence of 4-aminopyridine to increase the number of transmitter quanta released by each stimulus. Vesicle openings began to appear at the active zones of the intramuscular nerves within 3-4 ms after a single stimulus. The concentration of these openings peaked at 5-6 ms, and then declined to zero 50-100 ms late. At the later times, vesicle openings tended to be larger. Left behind at the active zones, after the vesicle openings disappeared, were clusters of large intramembrane particles. The larger particles in these clusters were the same size as intramembrane particles in undischarged vesicles, and were slightly larger than the particles which form the rows delineating active zones. Because previous tracer work had shown that new vesicles do not pinch off from the plasma membrane at these early times, we concluded that the particle clusters originate from membranes of discharged vesicles which collapse into the plasmalemma after exocytosis. The rate of vesicle collapse appeared to be variable because different stages occurred simultaneously at most times after stimulation; this asynchrony was taken to indicate that the collapse of each exocytotic vesicle is slowed by previous nearby collapses. The ultimate fate of synaptic vesicle membrane after collapse appeared to be coalescence with the plasma membrane, as the clusters of particles gradually dispersed into surrounding areas during the first second after a stimulus. The membrane retrieval and recycling that reverse this exocytotic sequence have a slower onset, as has been described in previous reports.

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