Large excitatory synapses with multiple active zones ensure reliable and fast information transfer at specific points in neuronal circuits. However, the mechanisms that determine synapse size in CNS circuits are largely unknown. Here we use the calyx of Held synapse, a major relay in the auditory system, to identify and study signaling pathways that specify large nerve terminal size and fast synaptic transmission. Using genome-wide screening, we identified bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) as candidate signaling molecules in the area of calyx synapses. Conditional deletion of BMP receptors in the auditory system of mice led to aberrations of synapse morphology and function specifically at the calyx of Held, with impaired nerve terminal growth, loss of monoinnervation and less mature transmitter release properties. Thus, BMP signaling specifies large and fast-transmitting synapses in the auditory system in a process that shares homologies with, but also extends beyond, retrograde BMP signaling at Drosophila neuromuscular synapses.
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