Agrin, a proteoglycan secreted by motoneurons, is a critical organizer of synaptic differentiation at skeletal neuromuscular junctions. Agrin is widely expressed in the nervous system so other functions seem likely, but none have been demonstrated. To test roles for agrin in interneuronal synapse formation, we studied hippocampi from mutant mice that completely lack the z+ splice form of agrin essential for neuromuscular differentiation and also exhibit severely ( approximately 90%) reduced levels of all agrin isoforms (M. Gautam et al., 1996, Cell 85, 525-535). The brains of neonatal homozygous agrin mutants were often smaller than those of heterozygous and wild-type littermates, but were morphologically and histologically indistinguishable. In particular, antibodies to pre- and postsynaptic components of glutamatergic synapses were similarly coaggregated at synaptic sites in both mutants and controls. Because mutants die at birth due to neuromuscular defects, we cultured neurons to assess later stages of synaptic maturation. In primary cultures, the agrin-deficient neurons formed MAP2-positive dendrites and tau-1-positive axons. Synaptic vesicle proteins, AMPA- and NMDA-type glutamate receptors, GABAA receptors, and the putative synapse-organizing proteins PSD-95, GKAP, and gephyrin formed numerous clusters at synaptic sites. Quantitatively, the number of SV2-labeled contacts per neuron at day 5 and the number of PSD-95 clusters per dendrite length at day 18 in culture showed no significant differences between genotypes. Furthermore, exogenous z+ agrin was unable to induce ectopic accumulation of components of central glutamatergic or GABAergic synapses as it does for neuromuscular cholinergic synapses. These results indicate that the z+ forms of agrin are dispensable for glutamatergic and GABAergic synaptic differentiation in the central nervous system.
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