Sensory synapses of the visual and auditory systems must faithfully encode a wide dynamic range of graded signals, and must be capable of sustained transmitter release over long periods of time. Functionally and morphologically, these sensory synapses are unique: their active zones are specialized in several ways for sustained, rapid vesicle exocytosis, but their most striking feature is an organelle called the synaptic ribbon, which is a proteinaceous structure that extends into the cytoplasm at the active zone and tethers a large pool of releasable vesicles. But precisely how does the ribbon function to support tonic release at these synapses? Recent genetic and biophysical advances have begun to open the 'black box' of the synaptic ribbon with some surprising findings and promise to resolve its function in vision and hearing.
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