Deconstructing the late phase of vimentin assembly by total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (TIRFM)

PLoS One. 2011 Apr 22;6(4):e19202. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019202.


Quantitative imaging of intermediate filaments (IF) during the advanced phase of the assembly process is technically difficult, since the structures are several µm long and therefore they exceed the field of view of many electron (EM) or atomic force microscopy (AFM) techniques. Thereby quantitative studies become extremely laborious and time-consuming. To overcome these difficulties, we prepared fluorescently labeled vimentin for visualization by total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (TIRFM). In order to investigate if the labeling influences the assembly properties of the protein, we first determined the association state of unlabeled vimentin mixed with increasing amounts of labeled vimentin under low ionic conditions by analytical ultracentrifugation. We found that bona fide tetrameric complexes were formed even when half of the vimentin was labeled. Moreover, we demonstrate by quantitative atomic force microscopy and electron microscopy that the morphology and the assembly properties of filaments were not affected when the fraction of labeled vimentin was below 10%. Using fast frame rates we observed the rapid deposition of fluorescently labeled IFs on glass supports by TIRFM in real time. By tracing their contours, we have calculated the persistence length of long immobilized vimentin IFs to 1 µm, a value that is identical to those determined for shorter unlabeled vimentin. These results indicate that the structural properties of the filaments were not affected significantly by the dye. Furthermore, in order to analyze the late elongation phase, we mixed long filaments containing either Alexa 488- or Alexa 647-labeled vimentin. The 'patchy' structure of the filaments obtained unambiguously showed the elongation of long IFs through direct end-to-end annealing of individual filaments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Intermediate Filaments / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods*
  • Ultracentrifugation
  • Vimentin / metabolism*


  • Vimentin