The intermediate filaments (IFs) form major structural elements of the cytoskeleton. In vitro analyses of these fibrous proteins reveal very different assembly properties for the nuclear and cytoplasmic IF proteins. However, keratins in particular, the largest and most heterogenous group of cytoplasmic IF proteins, have been difficult to analyze due to their rapid assembly dynamics under the near-physiological conditions used for other IF proteins. We show here that keratins, like other cytoplasmic IF proteins, go through a stage of assembling into full-width soluble complexes, i.e., "unit-length filaments" (ULFs). In contrast to other IF proteins, however, longitudinal annealing of keratin ULFs into long filaments quasi-coincides with their formation. In vitro assembly of IF proteins into filaments can be initiated by an increase of the ionic strength and/or lowering of the pH of the assembly buffer. We now document that 23-mer peptides from the head domains of various IF proteins can induce filament formation even under conditions of low salt and high pH. This suggests that the "heads" are involved in the formation and longitudinal association of the ULFs. Using a Tris-buffering protocol that causes formation of soluble oligomers at pH 9, the epidermal keratins K5/14 form less regular filaments and less efficiently than the simple epithelial keratins K8/18. In sodium phosphate buffers (pH 7.5), however, K5/14 were able to form long partially unraveled filaments which compacted into extended, regular filaments upon addition of 20 mM KCl. Applying the same assembly regimen to mutant K14 R125H demonstrated that mutations causing a severe disease phenotype and morphological filament abnormalities can form long, regular filaments with surprising efficiency in vitro.
(c) 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).