In atrial fibrillation (AF), abnormalities in Ca2+ release contribute to arrhythmia generation and contractile dysfunction. We explore whether ryanodine receptor (RyR) cluster ultrastructure is altered and is associated with functional abnormalities in AF.Methods and results
Using high-resolution confocal microscopy (STED), we examined RyR cluster morphology in fixed atrial myocytes from sheep with persistent AF (N = 6) and control (Ctrl; N = 6) animals. RyR clusters on average contained 15 contiguous RyRs; this did not differ between AF and Ctrl. However, the distance between clusters was significantly reduced in AF (288 ± 12 vs. 376 ± 17 nm). When RyR clusters were grouped into Ca2+ release units (CRUs), i.e. clusters separated by <150 nm, CRUs in AF had more clusters (3.43 ± 0.10 vs. 2.95 ± 0.02 in Ctrl), which were more dispersed. Furthermore, in AF cells, more RyR clusters were found between Z lines. In parallel experiments, Ca2+ sparks were monitored in live permeabilized myocytes. In AF, myocytes had >50% higher spark frequency with increased spark time to peak (TTP) and duration, and a higher incidence of macrosparks. A computational model of the CRU was used to simulate the morphological alterations observed in AF cells. Increasing cluster fragmentation to the level observed in AF cells caused the observed changes, i.e. higher spark frequency, increased TTP and duration; RyR clusters dispersed between Z-lines increased the occurrence of macrosparks.Conclusion
In persistent AF, ultrastructural reorganization of RyR clusters within CRUs is associated with overactive Ca2+ release, increasing the likelihood of propagating Ca2+ release.