The larval neuromuscular synapse of Drosophila serves as an important model for genetic and molecular analysis of synaptic development and function. Further functional characterization of this synapse, as well as adult neuromuscular synapses, will greatly enhance the impact of this model system on our understanding of synaptic transmission. Here we describe a form of short-term synaptic depression observed at larval, but not adult, neuromuscular synapses and explore the underlying mechanisms. Larval neuromuscular synapses exhibited a form of short-term depression that was strongly dependent on stimulation frequency over a narrow range of low frequencies (0.1-1 Hz). This form of synaptic depression, referred to here as low-frequency short-term depression (LF-STD), results from an activity-dependent reduction in neurotransmitter release. However, in contrast to the predictions of depletion models, the degree of depression was independent of the initial level of neurotransmitter release over a range of extracellular calcium concentrations. This conclusion was confirmed in two temperature-sensitive (TS) paralytic mutants, cacophony and shibire, which exhibit reduced neurotransmitter release resulting from conditional disruption of presynaptic calcium channels and dynamin, respectively. Higher stimulation frequencies (40 or 60 Hz) produced two components of depression that appeared to include LF-STD as well as a more conventional component of short-term depression. These findings reveal novel properties of short-term synaptic depression and suggest that complementary genetic analysis of larval and adult neuromuscular synapses will further define the in vivo mechanisms of neurotransmitter release and short-term synaptic plasticity.
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