Excitatory synapses in the brain play key roles in learning and memory. The formation and functions of postsynaptic mushroom-shaped structures, dendritic spines, and possibly of presynaptic terminals, rely on actin cytoskeleton remod- eling. However, the cytoskeletal architecture of synapses remains unknown hindering the understanding of synapse morphogenesis. Using platinum replica electron microscopy, we characterized the cytoskeletal organization and molec- ular composition of dendritic spines, their precursors, dendritic filopodia, and presynaptic boutons. A branched actin filament network containing Arp2/3 complex and capping protein was a dominant feature of spine heads and presynaptic boutons. Surprisingly, the spine necks and bases, as well as dendritic filopodia, also contained a network, rather than a bundle, of branched and linear actin filaments that was immunopositive for Arp2/3 complex, capping protein, and myosin II, but not fascin. Thus, a tight actin filament bundle is not necessary for structural support of elongated filopodia-like protrusions. Dynamically, dendritic filopodia emerged from densities in the dendritic shaft, which by electron microscopy contained branched actin network associated with dendritic microtubules. We propose that dendritic spine morphogen- esis begins from an actin patch elongating into a dendritic filopodium, which tip subsequently expands via Arp2/3 complex-dependent nucleation and which length is modulated by myosin II-dependent contractility.
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