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J Mol Biol. 2005 Dec 2;354(3):569-77. Epub 2005 Oct 21.

Exploring the mechanical behavior of single intermediate filaments.

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M.E Müller Institute for Structural Biology, Biozentrum, University of Basel Klingelbergstrasse 70, 4056 Basel, Switzerland.


Intermediate filaments (IFs) are structural elements of eukaryotic cells with distinct mechanical properties. Tissue integrity is severely impaired, in particular in skin and muscle, when IFs are either absent or malfunctioning due to mutations. Our knowledge on the mechanical properties of IFs is mainly based on tensile testing of macroscopic fibers and on the rheology of IF networks. At the single filament level, the only piece of data available is a measure of the persistence length of vimentin IFs. Here, we have employed an atomic force microscopy (AFM) based protocol to directly probe the mechanical properties of single cytoplasmic IFs when adsorbed to a solid support in physiological buffer environment. Three IF types were studied in vitro: recombinant murine desmin, recombinant human keratin K5/K14 and neurofilaments isolated from rat brains, which are composed of the neurofilament triplet proteins NF-L, NF-M and NF-H. Depending on the experimental conditions, the AFM tip was used to laterally displace or to stretch single IFs on the support they had been adsorbed to. Upon applying force, IFs were stretched on average 2.6-fold. The maximum stretching that we encountered was 3.6-fold. A large reduction of the apparent filament diameter was observed concomitantly. The observed mechanical properties therefore suggest that IFs may indeed function as mechanical shock absorbers in vivo.

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