In the vertebrate retina, horizontal cells generate the inhibitory surround of bipolar cells, an essential step in contrast enhancement. For the last decades, the mechanism involved in this inhibitory synaptic pathway has been a major controversy in retinal research. One hypothesis suggests that connexin hemichannels mediate this negative feedback signal; another suggests that feedback is mediated by protons. Mutant zebrafish were generated that lack connexin 55.5 hemichannels in horizontal cells. Whole cell voltage clamp recordings were made from isolated horizontal cells and cones in flat mount retinas. Light-induced feedback from horizontal cells to cones was reduced in mutants. A reduction of feedback was also found when horizontal cells were pharmacologically hyperpolarized but was absent when they were pharmacologically depolarized. Hemichannel currents in isolated horizontal cells showed a similar behavior. The hyperpolarization-induced hemichannel current was strongly reduced in the mutants while the depolarization-induced hemichannel current was not. Intracellular recordings were made from horizontal cells. Consistent with impaired feedback in the mutant, spectral opponent responses in horizontal cells were diminished in these animals. A behavioral assay revealed a lower contrast-sensitivity, illustrating the role of the horizontal cell to cone feedback pathway in contrast enhancement. Model simulations showed that the observed modifications of feedback can be accounted for by an ephaptic mechanism. A model for feedback, in which the number of connexin hemichannels is reduced to about 40%, fully predicts the specific asymmetric modification of feedback. To our knowledge, this is the first successful genetic interference in the feedback pathway from horizontal cells to cones. It provides direct evidence for an unconventional role of connexin hemichannels in the inhibitory synapse between horizontal cells and cones. This is an important step in resolving a long-standing debate about the unusual form of (ephaptic) synaptic transmission between horizontal cells and cones in the vertebrate retina.
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