Characterization of distinct early assembly units of different intermediate filament proteins

J Mol Biol. 1999 Mar 12;286(5):1403-20. doi: 10.1006/jmbi.1999.2528.


We have determined the mass-per-length (MPL) composition of distinct early assembly products of recombinant intermediate filament (IF) proteins from the four cytoplasmic sequence homology classes, and compared these values with those of the corresponding mature filaments. After two seconds under standard assembly conditions (i.e. 25 mM Tris-HCl (pH 7.5), 50 mM NaCl, 37 degrees C), vimentin, desmin and the neurofilament triplet protein NF-L aggregated into similar types of "unit-length filaments" (ULFs), whereas cytokeratins (CKs) 8/18 already yielded long IFs at this time point, so the ionic strength had to be reduced. The number of molecules per filament cross-section, as deduced from the MPL values, was lowest for CK8/18, i.e. 16 and 25 at two seconds compared to 16 and 21 at one hour. NF-L exhibited corresponding values of 26 and 30. Vimentin ULFs yielded a pronounced heterogeneity, with major peak values of 32 and 45 at two seconds and 30, 37 and 44 after one hour. Desmin formed filaments of distinctly higher mass with 47 molecules per cross-section, at two seconds and after one hour of assembly. This indicates that individual types of IF proteins generate filaments with distinctly different numbers of molecules per cross-section. Also, the observed significant reduction of apparent filament diameter of ULFs compared to the corresponding mature IFs is the result of a "conservative" radial compaction-type reorganization within the filament, as concluded from the fact that both the immature and mature filaments contain very similar numbers of subunits per cross-section. Moreover, the MPL composition of filaments is strikingly dependent on the assembly conditions employed. For example, vimentin fibers formed in 0.7 mM phosphate (pH 7.5), 2.5 mM MgCl2, yield a significantly increased number of molecules per cross-section (56 and 84) compared to assembly under standard conditions. Temperature also strongly influences assembly: above a certain threshold temperature "pathological" ULFs form that are arrested in this state, indicating that the system is forced into strong but unproductive interactions between subunits. Similar "dead-end" structures were obtained with vimentins mutated to introduce principal alterations in subdomains presumed to be of general structural importance, indicating that these sequence changes led to new modes of intermolecular interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cations / pharmacology
  • Desmin / metabolism
  • Desmin / ultrastructure
  • Dialysis
  • Humans
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / chemistry
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / metabolism*
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / ultrastructure
  • Intermediate Filaments / chemistry
  • Intermediate Filaments / genetics
  • Intermediate Filaments / metabolism*
  • Intermediate Filaments / ultrastructure
  • Keratins / metabolism
  • Keratins / ultrastructure
  • Kinetics
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Molecular Weight
  • Neurofilament Proteins / metabolism
  • Neurofilament Proteins / ultrastructure
  • Point Mutation
  • Protein Binding / drug effects
  • Protein Structure, Secondary / drug effects
  • Recombinant Proteins / metabolism
  • Recombinant Proteins / ultrastructure
  • Temperature
  • Trout
  • Vimentin / chemistry
  • Vimentin / genetics
  • Vimentin / metabolism
  • Vimentin / ultrastructure


  • Cations
  • Desmin
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Neurofilament Proteins
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Vimentin
  • Keratins