Plectin is a cytoskeletal, high molecular weight protein of widespread and abundant occurrence in cultured cells and tissues. To study its molecular structure, the protein was purified from rat glioma C6 cells and subjected to chemical and biophysical analyses. Plectin's polypeptide chains have an apparent molecular weight of 300,000, as shown by one-dimensional sodium dodecyl sulfate/polyacrylamide electrophoresis. Cross-linking of non-denatured plectin in solution with dimethyl suberimidate and electrophoretic analyses on sodium dodecyl sulfate/agarose gels revealed that the predominant soluble plectin species was a molecule of 1200 X 10(3) Mr consisting of four 300 X 10(3) Mr polypeptide chains. Hydrodynamic properties of plectin in solution were obtained by sedimentation velocity centrifugation and high-pressure liquid chromatography analysis yielding a sedimentation coefficient of 10 S and a Stokes radius of 27 nm. The high f/fmin ratio of 4.0 indicated a very elongated shape of plectin molecules and an axial ratio of about 50. Shadowing and negative staining electron microscopy of plectin molecules revealed multiple domains: a rigid rod of 184 nm in length and 2 nm in diameter, and two globular heads of 9 nm diameter at each end of the rod. Circular dichroism spectra suggested a composition of 30% alpha-helix, 9% beta-structure and 61% random coil or aperiodic structure. The rod-like shape, the alpha-helix content as well as the thermal transition within a midpoint of 45 degrees C and the transition enthalpy (168 kJ/mol) of secondary structure suggested a double-stranded, alpha-helical coiled coil rod domain. Based on the available data, we favor a model of native plectin as a dumb-bell-like association of four 300 X 10(3) Mr polypeptide chains. Electron microscopy and turbidity measurements showed that plectin molecules self-associate into various oligomeric states in solutions of nearly physiological ionic strength. These interactions apparently involved the globular end domains of the molecule. Given its rigidity and elongated shape, and its tendency towards self-association, plectin may well be an interlinking element of the cytoskeleton that may also form a network of its own.