Contraction of skeletal muscle cells is initiated by a well-known signaling pathway. An action potential in a motor nerve triggers an action potential in a muscle cell membrane, a transient increase of intracellular calcium concentration, binding of calcium to troponin in the actin-containing thin filaments, and a structural change in the thin filaments that allows myosin motors from the thick filaments to bind to actin and generate force. This calcium/thin filament mediated pathway provides the "START" signal for contraction, but it is argued that the functional response of the muscle cell, including the speed of its contraction and relaxation, adaptation to the external load, and the metabolic cost of contraction is largely determined by additional mechanisms. This review considers the role of the thick filaments in those mechanisms, and puts forward a paradigm for the control of contraction in skeletal muscle in which both the thick and thin filaments have a regulatory function. The OFF state of the thick filament is characterized by helical packing of most of the myosin head or motor domains on the thick filament surface in a conformation that makes them unavailable for actin binding or ATP hydrolysis, although a small fraction of the myosin heads are constitutively ON. The availability of the majority fraction of the myosin heads for contraction is controlled in part by the external load on the muscle, so that these heads only attach to actin and hydrolyze ATP when they are required. This phenomenon seems to be the major determinant of the well-known force-velocity relationship of muscle, and controls the metabolic cost of contraction. The regulatory state of the thick filament also seems to control the dynamics of both muscle activation and relaxation.
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