The clathrin adaptor complex AP2 is thought to be an obligate heterotetramer. We identify null mutations in the α subunit of AP2 in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. α-adaptin mutants are viable and the remaining μ2/β hemicomplex retains some function. Conversely, in μ2 mutants, the alpha/sigma2 hemicomplex is localized and is partially functional. α-μ2 double mutants disrupt both halves of the complex and are lethal. The lethality can be rescued by expression of AP2 components in the skin, which allowed us to evaluate the requirement for AP2 subunits at synapses. Mutations in either α or μ2 subunits alone reduce the number of synaptic vesicles by about 30%; however, simultaneous loss of both α and μ2 subunits leads to a 70% reduction in synaptic vesicles and the presence of large vacuoles. These data suggest that AP2 may function as two partially independent hemicomplexes.
The cell membrane is a busy place, with cell-surface proteins continually added and removed according to the needs of the cell. Each protein extends a polypeptide tail into the cell cytoplasm. When a protein is to be removed from the cell surface, its tail recruits a protein complex known as the AP2 adaptor to the membrane. AP2 then recruits a coat protein called clathrin, which forms a spherical scaffold around the adaptor, the target protein and the surrounding membrane, enclosing them inside a vesicle that breaks off from the membrane and enters the cell.
Endocytosis is particularly common in neurons, which use it as a means of recycling proteins at synapses—the contact points between nerve cells. However, it is unclear whether synaptic-vesicle recycling also involves clathrin and AP2. To address this question, Gu et al. examined mutant nematode worms (C. elegans) in which the composition of AP2 had been altered.
AP2 has four subunits, called α, β2, μ2 and σ2, and Gu et al. produced worms that lack either the α- or μ2-subunit, or both. Few worms that lacked both subunits survived. Surprisingly, however, worms that lacked just one subunit were viable, despite previous evidence that AP2 requires all four subunits to be functional. Nevertheless, these single mutants produced 30% fewer synaptic vesicles compared to wild-type worms. To examine the consequences of both subunits being absent, Gu et al. rescued the double mutants by selectively expressing AP2 in their skin. These animals—which still lack AP2 in their nervous systems—produced 70% fewer synaptic vesicles than their wild-type counterparts.
The results show that AP2 does not need all four of its subunits and that it can exist as two semi-independent hemicomplexes. Moreover, Gu et al. show that C. elegans uses at least two endocytotic mechanisms (AP2-dependent and independent) to recycle vesicles and so maintain synaptic function.