Plasticity of intermediate filament subunits

Robert Kirmse, Zhao Qin, Carl M. Weinert, Andrea Hoenger, Markus J. Buehler, Laurent Kreplak

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10 Scopus citations


Intermediate filaments (IFs) assembled in vitro from recombinantly expressed proteins have a diameter of 8-12 nm and can reach several micrometers in length. IFs assemble from a soluble pool of subunits, tetramers in the case of vimentin. Upon salt addition, the subunits form first unit length filaments (ULFs) within seconds and then assembly proceeds further by end-to-end fusion of ULFs and short filaments. So far, IF subunits have mainly been observed by electron microscopy of glycerol sprayed and rotary metal shadowed specimens. Due to the shear forces during spraying the IF subunits appear generally as straight thin rods. In this study, we used atomic force microscopy (AFM), cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) combined with molecular modeling to investigate the conformation of the subunits of vimentin, desmin and keratin K5/K14 IFs in various conditions. Due to their anisotropic shape the subunits are difficult to image at high resolution by cryo-EM. In order to enhance contrast we used a cryo-negative staining approach. The subunits were clearly identified as thin, slightly curved rods. However the staining agent also forced the subunits to aggregate into two-dimensional networks of dot-like structures. To test this conformational change further, we imaged dried unfixed subunits on mica by AFM revealing a mixture of extended and dot-like conformations. The use of divalent ions such as calcium and magnesium, as well as glutaraldehyde exposure favored compact conformations over elongated ones. These experimental results as well as coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations of a vimentin tetramer highlight the plasticity of IF subunits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12115
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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