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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The formation of acetylcholine receptor clusters visualized with quantum dots

Lin Geng, Hailong L Zhang and H Benjamin Peng*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:80  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-80

Published: 16 July 2009



Motor innervation of skeletal muscle leads to the assembly of acetylcholine receptor (AChR) clusters in the postsynaptic membrane at the vertebrate neuromuscular junction (NMJ). Synaptic AChR aggregation, according to the diffusion-mediated trapping hypothesis, involves the establishment of a postsynaptic scaffold that "traps" freely diffusing receptors into forming high-density clusters. Although this hypothesis is widely cited to explain the formation of postsynaptic AChR clusters, direct evidence at molecular level is lacking.


Using quantum dots (QDs) and live cell imaging, we provide new measurements supporting the diffusion-trap hypothesis as applied to AChR cluster formation. Consistent with published works, experiments on cultured Xenopus myotomal muscle cells revealed that AChRs at clusters that formed spontaneously (pre-patterned clusters, also called hot spots) and at those induced by nerve-innervation or by growth factor-coated latex beads were very stable whereas diffuse receptors outside these regions were mobile. Moreover, despite the restriction of AChR movement at sites of synaptogenic stimulation, individual receptors away from these domains continued to exhibit free diffusion, indicating that AChR clustering at NMJ does not involve an active attraction of receptors but is passive and diffusion-driven.


Single-molecular tracking using QDs has provided direct evidence that the clustering of AChRs in muscle cells in response to synaptogenic stimuli is achieved by two distinct cellular processes: the Brownian motion of receptors in the membrane and their trapping and immobilization at the synaptic specialization. This study also provides a clearer picture of the "trap" that it is not a uniformly sticky area but consists of discrete foci at which AChRs are immobilized.