Synaptic vesicles dock at active zones on the presynaptic plasma membrane of a neuron's axon terminals as a precondition for fusing with the membrane and releasing their neurotransmitter to mediate synaptic impulse transmission. Typically, docked vesicles are next to aggregates of plasma membrane-bound macromolecules called active zone material (AZM). Electron tomography on tissue sections from fixed and stained axon terminals of active and resting frog neuromuscular junctions has led to the conclusion that undocked vesicles are directed to and held at the docking sites by the successive formation of stable connections between vesicle membrane proteins and proteins in different classes of AZM macromolecules. Using the same nanometer scale 3D imaging technology on appropriately stained frog neuromuscular junctions, we found that ∼10% of a vesicle's luminal volume is occupied by a radial assembly of elongate macromolecules attached by narrow projections, nubs, to the vesicle membrane at ∼25 sites. The assembly's chiral, bilateral shape is nearly the same vesicle to vesicle, and nubs, at their sites of connection to the vesicle membrane, are linked to macromolecules that span the membrane. For docked vesicles, the orientation of the assembly's shape relative to the AZM and the presynaptic membrane is the same vesicle to vesicle, whereas for undocked vesicles it is not. The connection sites of most nubs on the membrane of docked vesicles are paired with the connection sites of the different classes of AZM macromolecules that regulate docking, and the membrane spanning macromolecules linked to these nubs are also attached to the AZM macromolecules. We conclude that the luminal assembly of macromolecules anchors in a particular arrangement vesicle membrane macromolecules, which contain the proteins that connect the vesicles to AZM macromolecules during docking. Undocked vesicles must move in a way that aligns this arrangement with the AZM macromolecules for docking to proceed
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