We introduce a bistability mechanism for long-term synaptic plasticity based on switching between two metastable states that contain significantly different numbers of synaptic receptors. One state is characterized by a two-dimensional gas of mobile interacting receptors and is stabilized against clustering by a high nucleation barrier. The other state contains a receptor gas in equilibrium with a large cluster of immobile receptors, which is stabilized by the turnover rate of receptors into and out of the synapse. Transitions between the two states can be initiated by either an increase (potentiation) or a decrease (depotentiation) of the net receptor flux into the synapse. This changes the saturation level of the receptor gas and triggers nucleation or evaporation of receptor clusters. © 2012 American Physical Society.