During mammalian development, neuromuscular junctions and some other postsynaptic cells transition from multiple- to single-innervation as synaptic sites are exchanged between different axons. It is unclear whether one axon invades synaptic sites to drive off other inputs or alternatively axons expand their territory in response to sites vacated by other axons. Here we show that soon-to-be-eliminated axons rapidly reverse fate and grow to occupy vacant sites at a neuromuscular junction after laser removal of a stronger input. This reversal supports the idea that axons take over sites that were previously vacated. Indeed, during normal development we observed withdrawal followed by takeover. The stimulus for axon growth is not postsynaptic cell inactivity because axons grow into unoccupied sites even when target cells are functionally innervated. These results demonstrate competition at the synaptic level and enable us to provide a conceptual framework for understanding this form of synaptic plasticity.
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