Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2023 Dec 1;64(15):35. doi: 10.1167/iovs.64.15.35.
PURPOSE: Despite the centrality of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) in vision and retinopathy our picture of RPE morphology is incomplete. With a volumetric reconstruction of human RPE ultrastructure, we aim to characterize major membranous features including apical processes and their interactions with photoreceptor outer segments, basolateral infoldings, and the distribution of intracellular organelles.
METHODS: A parafoveal retinal sample was acquired from a 21-year-old male organ donor. With serial block-face scanning electron microscopy, a tissue volume from the inner-outer segment junction to basal RPE was captured. Surface membranes and complete internal ultrastructure of an individual RPE cell were achieved with a combination of manual and automated segmentation methods.
RESULTS: In one RPE cell, apical processes constitute 69% of the total cell surface area, through a dense network of over 3000 terminal branches. Single processes contact several photoreceptors. Basolateral infoldings facing the choriocapillaris resemble elongated filopodia and comprise 22% of the cell surface area. Membranous tubules and sacs of endoplasmic reticulum represent 20% of the cell body volume. A dense basal layer of mitochondria extends apically to partly overlap electron-dense pigment granules. Pores in the nuclear envelope form a distinct pattern of rows aligned with chromatin.
CONCLUSIONS: Specialized membranes at the apical and basal side of the RPE cell body involved in intercellular uptake and transport represent over 90% of the total surface area. Together with the polarized distribution of organelles within the cell body, these findings are relevant for retinal clinical imaging, therapeutic approaches, and disease pathomechanisms.