Contractile actomyosin bundles are critical for numerous aspects of muscle and nonmuscle cell physiology. Due to the varying composition and structure of actomyosin bundles in vivo, the minimal requirements for their contraction remain unclear. Here, we demonstrate that actin filaments and filaments of smooth muscle myosin motors can self-assemble into bundles with contractile elements that efficiently transmit actomyosin forces to cellular length scales. The contractile and force-generating potential of these minimal actomyosin bundles is sharply sensitive to the myosin density. Above a critical myosin density, these bundles are contractile and generate large tensile forces. Below this threshold, insufficient cross-linking of F-actin by myosin thick filaments prevents efficient force transmission and can result in rapid bundle disintegration. For contractile bundles, the rate of contraction decreases as forces build and stalls under loads of ∼0.5 nN. The dependence of contraction speed and stall force on bundle length is consistent with bundle contraction occurring by several contractile elements connected in series. Thus, contraction in reconstituted actomyosin bundles captures essential biophysical characteristics of myofibrils while lacking numerous molecular constituents and structural signatures of sarcomeres. These results provide insight into nonsarcomeric mechanisms of actomyosin contraction found in smooth muscle and nonmuscle cells.
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