Purified intermediate filament (IF) proteins can be reassembled in vitro to produce polymers closely resembling those found in cells, and these filaments form viscoelastic gels. The cross-links holding IFs together in the network include specific bonds between polypeptides extending from the filament surface and ionic interactions mediated by divalent cations. IF networks exhibit striking nonlinear elasticity with stiffness, as quantified by shear modulus, increasing an order of magnitude as the networks are deformed to large strains resembling those that soft tissues undergo in vivo. Individual IFs can be stretched to more than two or three times their resting length without breaking. At least 10 different rheometric methods have been used to quantify the viscoelasticity of IF networks over a wide range of timescales and strain magnitudes. The mechanical roles of different classes of cytoplasmic IFs on mesenchymal and epithelial cells in culture have also been studied by an even wider range of microrheological methods. These studies have documented the effects on cell mechanics when IFs are genetically or pharmacologically disrupted or when normal or mutant IF proteins are exogenously expressed in cells. Consistent with in vitro rheology, the mechanical role of IFs is more apparent as cells are subjected to larger and more frequent deformations.
Keywords: Cytoskeleton; Desmin; Elastic modulus; Keratin; Neurofilaments; Stiffness; Strain; Vimentin; Viscoelastic.
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