U of U Biologists Surprised to Discover "Ultrafast Recycling" at Nerve Synapses

Dec 4, 2013

University of Utah Biologists Erik Jorgensen (left) and Shigeki Watanabe at the Biology Lab's Electron Microscope.
University of Utah Biologists Erik Jorgensen (left) and Shigeki Watanabe at the Biology Lab's Electron Microscope.
Credit Bob Nelson

University of Utah biologists have discovered that nerve cells work very differently and much faster than previously thought. Erik Jorgensen is a professor of biology at the U, and senior author of the study. He and fellow author Shigeki Watanabe published their findings Wednesday in the journal Nature.  Jorgensen says it took six years to develop the device that could flash freeze the high speed event under an electron microscope.

“When we finally did the experiment, the result was a huge surprise. It’s not what had been seen before. It wasn’t the process that people had been working on at all,” says Jorgensen.

Watanabe says it was thought that nerves function over a period of up to 20 seconds. He says their research shows ultrafast recycling, in milliseconds on “vesicles” or tiny bubbles sending signals along the cell pathway.

Credit Artist Janet Iwasa, University of Utah

“So the pathway that we found, actually allows you to recycle these bubbles or the synaptic vesicles quickly so that we can actually reuse it in a much faster scale, says Watanabe. "We found this new pathway but it doesn’t really explain how these new bubbles are actually made and that’s what we are studying at this moment,” Watanabe says.

Professor Jorgensen says he is excited and nervous as the research is published. He says he expects the scientific community to scrutinize the study results, but so far the feedback has been very positive.