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J Struct Biol. 2007 Jun;158(3):378-85. Epub 2006 Dec 28.

Dissecting the 3-D structure of vimentin intermediate filaments by cryo-electron tomography.

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  • 1Structural and Computational Biology Unit, European Molecular Biology Lab, Meyerhofstrasse 1, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany.


Vimentin polymerizes via complex lateral interactions of coiled-coil dimers into long, flexible filaments referred to as intermediate filaments (IFs). Intermediate in diameter between microtubules and microfilaments, IFs constitute the third cytoskeletal filament system of metazoan cells. Here we investigated the molecular basis of the 3-D architecture of vimentin IFs by cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) as well as cryo-electron tomography (Cryo-ET) 3-D reconstruction. We demonstrate that vimentin filaments in cross-section exhibit predominantly a four-stranded protofibrilar organization with a right-handed supertwist with a helical pitch of about 96 nm. Compact filaments imaged by cryo-EM appear surprisingly straight and hence appear very stiff. In addition, IFs exhibited an increased flexibility at sites of partial unraveling. This is in strong contrast to chemically fixed, negatively stained preparations of vimentin filaments that generally exhibit smooth bending without untwisting. At some point along the filament unraveling may be triggered and propagates in a cooperative manner so that long stretches of filaments appear to have unraveled rapidly in a coordinated fashion.

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