Functional complexity of intermediate filament cytoskeletons: from structure to assembly to gene ablation

Int Rev Cytol. 2003;223:83-175. doi: 10.1016/s0074-7696(05)23003-6.


The cell biology of intermediate filament (IF) proteins and their filaments is complicated by the fact that the members of the gene family, which in humans amount to at least 65, are differentially expressed in very complex patterns during embryonic development. Thus, different tissues and cells express entirely different sets and amounts of IF proteins, the only exception being the nuclear B-type lamins, which are found in every cell. Moreover, in the course of evolution the individual members of this family have, within one species, diverged so much from each other with regard to sequence and thus molecular properties that it is hard to envision a unifying kind of function for them. The known epidermolytic diseases, caused by single point mutations in keratins, have been used as an argument for a role of IFs in mechanical "stress resistance," something one would not have easily ascribed to the beaded chain filaments, a special type of IF in the eye lens, or to nuclear lamins. Therefore, the power of plastic dish cell biology may be limited in revealing functional clues for these structural elements, and it may therefore be of interest to go to the extreme ends of the life sciences, i.e., from the molecular properties of individual molecules including their structure at the atomic level to targeted inactivation of their genes in living animals, mouse, and worm to define their role more precisely in metazoan cell physiology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology
  • Gene Deletion
  • Humans
  • Intermediate Filaments / chemistry*
  • Intermediate Filaments / genetics*
  • Intermediate Filaments / metabolism
  • Keratins / chemistry
  • Keratins / genetics
  • Keratins / metabolism


  • Keratins