Our laboratory has a dual focus – high-end imaging and cutting edge research in synaptic physiology. All projects make use of advanced imaging techniques, including STED and electron microscopy. The ultimate goal of our work is to understand the functional organization of the cell – the connection between the topological distribution of cellular elements (proteins or organelles) and their function. We currently focus on the presynaptic compartment, whose relative simplicity and well understood function render such studies more feasible.
Briefly, most proteins investigated so far by high resolution imaging form super-molecular assemblies or clusters. The reasons why they do so are complex, with no general explanation available, especially as the location of the clusters often does not correlate with the protein function. For example, fusion proteins involved in synaptic vesicle exocytosis can be found in clusters everywhere on the plasma membrane, even in places where there are no vesicles. Having an excess number of copies in a cluster is not limited to proteins: synaptic vesicles can be found clustered in immense numbers, especially in neuromuscular junctions, with few explanations available as to the functional relevance of most vesicles (for example, from the ~500,000 vesicles in the frog cutaneous pectoris neuromuscular junction, only ~250 vesicles are used for one action potential).
Thus, the functional organization of many synaptic (or cellular) elements is poorly understood. To solve this type of question, we combine imaging, biochemistry and biophysics to determine the amount of free molecules, of molecules found in clusters, as well as their exchange rates. We then compare all of these values to the numbers of molecules used in function. We termed this approach stoichiometric biology (Lang and Rizzoli, 2010), and we apply it to study both protein clusters and organelle (vesicle) organization. We have recently published the first demonstration of this approach, proposing a novel function for the clusters of synaptic vesicles, in buffering soluble synaptic proteins (Denker et al., 2011b).