Together with microtubules and actin microfilaments, approximately 11 nm wide intermediate filaments (IFs) constitute the integrated, dynamic filament network present in the cytoplasm of metazoan cells. This network is critically involved in division, motility and other cellular processes. While the structures of microtubules and microfilaments are known in atomic detail, IF architecture is presently much less understood. The elementary 'building block' of IFs is a highly elongated, rod-like dimer based on an alpha-helical coiled-coil structure. Assembly of cytoplasmic IF proteins, such as vimentin, begins with a lateral association of dimers into tetramers and gradually into the so-called unit-length filaments (ULFs). Subsequently ULFs start to anneal longitudinally, ultimately yielding mature IFs after a compaction step. For nuclear lamins, however, assembly starts with a head-to-tail association of dimers. Recently, X-ray crystallographic data were obtained for several fragments of the vimentin dimer. Based on the dimer structure, molecular models of the tetramer and the entire filament are now a possibility.
Copyright 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.