The in vitro polymerization and tissue-specific expression patterns of the four essential intermediate filament (IF) proteins (A1, A2, A3, B1) and the non-essential IF protein A4 were analyzed. Recombinant B1, used as a probe in blot overlay assays of the 11 Caenorhabditis elegans IF proteins, reacted strongly with proteins A1 to A4, indicating a heterotypic interaction. Obligate heteropolymeric filament assembly in vitro was confirmed by electron microscopy. Protein B1 formed long IF when mixed with an equimolar amount of A1, A2 or A3. Developmentally regulated coexpression of B1 and one or more members of the A family was found with GFP-promoter reporters. This coexpression pattern argues for a heteropolymer system in vivo. One or both splice variants of the B1 gene are always coexpressed in a tissue-specific manner with at least one member of the A family in hypodermis, pharynx, pharyngeal-intestinal valve, excretory cells, uterus, vulva and rectum. Interestingly, while the intestine normally lacks a B1/A pair, the dauer larva shows intestinal B1 and A4. These results are in line with similar postembryonic phenotypes of the hypodermis induced by RNA interference (RNAi) of genes B1, A2 and A3. Similarly, defects of the pharynx and its A1-GFP containing tonofilaments observed in the postembryonic B1 RNAi phenotype are consistent with the coexpression of B1 and A1 in the marginal cells. Thus RNAi analyses provide independent evidence for the existence of the B1/A obligate heteropolymer system in vivo. Proteins A1 and B1 have a similar and rather slow turnover rate in photobleaching experiments of the pharynx tonofilaments.