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Biol Cell. 2002 Dec;94(9):561-96.

Whatever happened to the 'microtrabecular concept'?

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Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri 63110, USA.


Keith Porter culminated his stellar career as the founding father of biological electron microscopy by acquiring, in the late 1970s, a high-voltage electron microscope (HVEM). With this magnificent instrument he examined whole-mounts of cultured cells, and perceived within them a structured cytoplasmic matrix he named the "microtrabecular lattice". Over the next decade Porter published a series of studies, together with a team of outstanding young colleagues, which elaborated his broader "microtrabecular concept." This concept posited that microtrabeculae were real physical entities that represented the fundamental organization the cytoplasm, and that they were the physical basis of cytoplasmic motility and of cell-shape determination. The present review presents Porter's original images of microtrabeculae, after conversion to a more interpretable "digital-anaglyph" form, and discusses the rise and fall of the microtrabecular concept. Further, it explains how the HVEM images of microtrabeculae finally came to be considered as an artifact of the preparative methods Porter used to prepare whole cells for HVEM. Still, Keith's "microtrabecular concept" foretold of our current appreciation of the complexity and pervasiveness of the cytoskeleton, which has now been found by more modern methods of EM to actually be the fundamental organizing principle of the cytoplasmic matrix. During the impending eclipse of Porter's microtrabecular concept in the late 1980s, many of Keith's colleagues fondly described the cell as being filled, not with protoplasm, but with "Porterplasm." Despite the fact that Keith's view was clouded by the methods of his time, it would be fitting and apt to retain this name, still today, for the ordered matrix of cytoskeletal macromolecules that exists in the living cell. In the end, the story of what happened to Porter's microtrabecular concept should be an object lesson in scientific hubris that should humble and inform all of us in cell biology, even today--particularly when we begin to think that our most recent methods and observations are achieving "the last word".

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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