Associate Professor, Department of Biology
Ph.D. Universita di Padova, Italy
B.Sc. Imperial College London, UK
Research Interests: Molecular mechanisms of synapse formation
Overview: Information is exchanged between neurons at synapses, which are essentially specialized sites of cell-cell adhesion . A mature synapse is defined as an accumulation of synaptic vesicles within the axon, in close apposition to a dendritic membrane studded with receptors (see figure)which are held in place by a submembranous scaffold (Sheng and Kim, 2002). The formation of such an intercellular structure requires spatially and temporally controlled changes in morphology and molecular content at sites of contacts. Recent advances in subcellular fluorescence microscopy have revealed that this process involves the rapid recruitment and stabilization of both pre- and postsynaptic elements. These studies have shown that major components of the synaptic vesicle and active zone machinery travel in clusters together with other presynaptic proteins, such as calcium channels, and are rapidly recruited to new sites of contact (Ahmari et al., 2000; Zhai et al., 2001; Washbourne et al., 2002) .
On the postsynaptic side, receptor subunits and components of the scaffold or post-synaptic density (PSD) are recruited separately and with distinct time courses within minutes to hours after initial contact (Friedman et al., 2000; Bresler et al., 2001; Washbourne et al., 2002; Bresler et al., 2004)
Despite these advances the basic mechanisms by which synapse formation is induced at discrete locations and by which the molecular machinery is recruited to sites of contact remain elusive. We are currently using both mammalian primary neuronal cultures and zebrafish embryos to investigate molecules that are involved in the mechanisms of synapse formation. Techniques currently employed are live confocal imaging of fluorescently-tagged synaptic components, electron microscopy, biochemistry and molecular biology.