Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



Department of Neurobiology; Budnik Lab

First Thesis Advisor

Vivian Budnik, PhD


Synapses, Synaptic Transmission, Exosomes


The minimal element of the nervous system, the synapse, is a plastic structure that has the ability to change in response to various internal and external factors. This property of the synapse underlies complex behaviors such as learning and memory. However, the exact molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in this process are not fully understood. To understand the mechanisms that regulate synapse development and plasticity I took advantage of a powerful model system, the Drosophila larval neuromuscular junction (NMJ). In this system, both anterograde and retrograde signaling pathways critical for coordinated synapse development and plasticity have been documented.

An anterograde WNT/Wingless (Wg) signaling pathway plays a crucial role in both developmental and activity-dependent synaptic plasticity at the NMJ. Presynaptic motor neuron terminals secrete highly hydrophobic Wg, which travels to relatively distant postsynaptic sites where it activates a signal transduction pathway required for postsynaptic development. In the first half of my thesis I unraveled a previously unrecognized cellular mechanism by which Wg is shuttled to postsynaptic sites. In this mechanism Wg rides on secreted microvesicles or exosomes that contain a dedicated WNT secretion factor, the WNT-binding transmembrane protein, Evenness Interrupted/Wntless/Sprinter (Evi/Wls/Srt). To our knowledge, this was the first in vivo study demonstrating that neurons release exosomes, which are involved in trans-synaptic communication. Moreover, this was the first study showing that hydrophobic WNT signals are transported to the extracellular space on exosomes to reach WNT-receptor containing target cells.

Retrograde signals are also critical during development and plasticity of synaptic connections. These signals function to adjust the activity of presynaptic cells according to postsynaptic cell outputs, to maintain synaptic function within a dynamic range. However, the mechanisms that trigger the release of retrograde signals and the role of presynaptic cells in this signaling event are not clear. In the second half of my thesis, I provided evidence that a crucial component of retrograde signaling at the fly NMJ, Synaptotagmin-4 (Syt4), is transmitted to the postsynaptic cell through anterograde delivery of Syt4 via exosomes. Drosophila Syt4 is known to reside on postsynaptic vesicles at the NMJ and function as a calcium sensor to release a retrograde signal upon synaptic activity. This event is required for coordinated maturation of the presynaptic terminal. We demonstrated that retrograde Syt4 function in postsynaptic muscle is required for activity-dependent presynaptic growth. However, surprisingly, Syt4 protein was not synthesized in postsynaptic muscles. Instead, Syt4 was produced in motorneurons and transferred to postsynaptic muscle cells via exosome secretion by presynaptic cells. The above study provided evidence for a presynaptic control of postsynaptic retrograde signaling through exosomal transfer of an essential retrograde signaling component.

In summary, this body of work reveals a novel mechanism of trans-synaptic communication through exosomes. While intercellular communication through exosomes had been demonstrated during antigen presentation in the immune system, our studies were the first to substantiate this mode of communication in the nervous system. Thus, these studies provide a significantly deeper and novel understanding of the mechanisms underlying synapse development and plasticity.



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