Form Follows Function: How Muscle Shape Is Regulated by Work

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2000 Mar;88(3):1127-32. doi: 10.1152/jappl.2000.88.3.1127.


What determines the shape, size, and force output of cardiac and skeletal muscle? Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), father of the skyscraper, observed that "form follows function." This is as true for the structural elements of a striated muscle cell as it is for the architectural features of a building. Function is a critical evolutionary determinant, not form. To survive, the animal has evolved muscles with the capacity for dynamic responses to altered functional demand. For example, work against an increased load leads to increased mass and cross-sectional area (hypertrophy), which is directly proportional to an increased potential for force production. Thus a cell has the capacity to alter its shape as well as its volume in response to a need for altered force production. Muscle function relies primarily on an organized assembly of contractile and other sarcomeric proteins. From analysis of homogenized cells and molecular and biochemical assays, we have learned about transcription, translation, and posttranslational processes that underlie protein synthesis but still have done little in addressing the important questions of shape or regional cell growth. Skeletal muscles only grow in length as the bones grow; therefore, most studies of adult hypertrophy really only involve increased cross-sectional area. The heart chamber, however, can extend in both longitudinal and transverse directions, and cardiac cells can grow in length and width. We know little about the regulation of these directional processes that appear as a cell gets larger with hypertrophy or smaller with atrophy. This review gives a brief overview of the regulation of cell shape and the composition and aggregation of contractile proteins into filaments, the sarcomere, and myofibrils. We examine how mechanical activity regulates the turnover and exchange of contraction proteins. Finally, we suggest what kinds of experiments are needed to answer these fundamental questions about the regulation of muscle cell shape.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Cell Size
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Muscle Proteins / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / cytology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Myocardium / cytology*
  • Myofibrils / ultrastructure
  • Sarcomeres / ultrastructure


  • Muscle Proteins