High voltage electron microscopy and conventional transmission electron microscopy were used to examine the ultrastructure of foliate taste buds of mice. Computer-assisted, three-dimensional reconstructions from serial sections were used to visualize regions of interaction between taste cells and nerve fibers.
Based on criteria previously established for murine vallate taste buds (Kinnamon et al., '85), foliate taste cells were classified as dark, light, or intermediate depending on their cytoplasmic content and the characteristics of their nuclei. Cells of foliate taste buds display a continuous range of morphologies, from “typical” dark cells to “typical” light cells. Cells of dark, intermediate, and light morphologies all make afferent synapses onto nerve processes, suggesting that cells of all 3 types are sensory in function. Synapses between taste cells and nerve processes may be either macular or fingerlike in shape. No efferent synapses were found.
In addition to conventional synapses, taste cells exhibit 2 other types of specializations at sites of apposition with nerve fibers: subsurface cisternae and atypical mitochondria. Subsurface cisternae are narrow sacs of endoplasmic reticulum that are closely apposed to the inner leaflet of the taste cell membrane. Possible functions of subsurface cisternae include synthesis of synaptic membrane components, modification of the electrical or adhesive properties of the taste cell membrane, and exchange of trophic factors with nerve processes. Atypical mitochondria are usually much larger than typical taste cell mitochondria, and their cristae often display a swollen, twisted configuration. These mitochondria are closely apposed to the inside of the taste cell membrane adjacent to nerve fibers. Atypical mitochondria may be providing unusual amounts of energy for metabolic reactions in their vicinities or participating in calcium buffering in the taste cell.
Within taste cells, presynaptic specializations, subsurface cisternae, and mitochondria are often clustered together to form “synaptic ensembles.” We hypothesize that the functions served by the subsurface cisternae and mitochondria, as well as synaptic transmission, may be important in interactions between taste cells and nerve fibers.