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Neuron A (transmitting) to neuron B (receiving)
1. Mitochondria
2. synaptic vesicle with neurotransmitters
3. Autoreceptor
4. Synapse with neurotransmitter released (serotonin)
5. Postsynaptic receptors activated by neurotransmitter (induction of a postsynaptic potential)
6. Calcium channel
7. Exocytosis of a vesicle
8. Recaptured neurotransmitter
Illustration of an axon releasing dopamine.

Exocytosis (ek-soh-sy-TOH-sis) is the process by which a cell directs secretory vesicles to the cell membrane. These membrane-bound vesicles contain soluble proteins to be secreted to the extracellular environment, as well as membrane proteins and lipids that are sent to become components of the cell membrane.


In multicellular organisms there are two types of exocytosis: 1) Ca2+ triggered non-constitutive and 2) non Ca2+ triggered constitutive. Exocytosis in neuronal chemical synapses is Ca2+ triggered and serves interneuronal signalling. Constitutive exocytosis is performed by all cells and serves the release of components of the extracellular matrix, or just delivery of newly-synthesized membrane proteins that are incorporated in the plasma membrane after the fusion of the transport vesicle.


Exocytosis is needed by cells for secretion of proteins like enzymes, peptide hormones and antibodies from cells, turnover of plasma membrane, release of neurotransmitter from presynaptic neurons, placement of integral membrane proteins, acrosome reaction during fertilization, antigen presentation during the immune response and recycling of plasma membrane bound receptors.

Exocytosis is important in cellular signaling. In neuronal communication both chemical and electrical information needs to be sent throughout the cell. Exocytosis sends and converts the electrical information into chemical information. Within the neural cells, the information is electrical. In the synapse, after exocytosis has occurred, the neurotransmitters are released, and the information is chemical. The release of the neurotransmitter can either be excitatory (causing activity from the target cell) or inhibitory (preventing activity by the target cell).


Five steps are involved in exocytosis:

Vesicle trafficking

Certain vesicle-trafficking steps require the translocation of a vesicle over a significant distance. For example, vesicles that carry proteins from the Golgi apparatus to the cell surface are likely to use motor proteins and a cytoskeletal track to get close to their target before tethering would be appropriate. Both the actin- and the microtubule-based cytoskeletons are implicated in these processes, along with several motor proteins. Once the vesicles reach their targets, they come into contact with tethering factors that can restrain them.

Vesicle tethering

It is useful to distinguish between the initial, loose tethering of vesicles with their targets from the more stable, docking interactions. Tethering involves links over distances of more than about half the diameter of a vesicle from a given membrane surface (>25 nm). Tethering interactions are likely to be involved in concentrating synaptic vesicles at the synapse.

Vesicle docking

The term docking refers to the holding of two membranes within a bilayer's distance of one another (<5-10 nm). Stable docking probably represents several distinct, molecular states: the molecular interactions underlying the close and tight association of a vesicle with its target may include the molecular rearrangements needed to trigger bilayer fusion. A common feature of many proteins that function in vesicle tethering and docking is their propensity to form highly extended, coiled-coil structures. Tethering and docking of a transport vesicle at the target membrane precedes the formation of a tight core SNARE complex.

Vesicle priming

In neuronal exocytosis, the term priming has been used to include all of the molecular rearrangements and ATP-dependent protein and lipid modifications that take place after initial docking of a synaptic vesicle but before exocytosis, such that the influx of calcium ions is all that is needed to trigger nearly instantaneous neurotransmitter release. In other cell types, whose secretion is constitutive (i.e. continuous, calcium ion independent, non-triggered) there is no priming.

Vesicle fusion

The vesicle fusion is driven by SNARE proteins process of merging the vesicle membrane with the target one resulting in release of large biomolecules in the extracellular space (or in case of neurons in the synaptic cleft).

The merging of the donor and the acceptor membranes accomplishes three tasks:
  • The surface of the plasma membrane increases (by the surface of the fused vesicle). This is important for the regulation of cell size, e.g., during cell growth.
  • The substances within the vesicle are released into the exterior. These might be waste products or toxins, or signalling molecules like hormones or neurotransmitters during synaptic transmission.
  • Proteins embedded in the vesicle membrane are now part of the plasma membrane. The side of the protein that was facing the inside of the vesicle now faces the outside of the cell. This mechanism is important for the regulation of transmembrane receptors and transporters.

External links

See also

Template:Membrane transport

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