X-ray diffraction evidence for the extensibility of actin and myosin filaments during muscle contraction

Biophys J. 1994 Dec;67(6):2422-35. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(94)80729-5.


To clarify the extensibility of thin actin and thick myosin filaments in muscle, we examined the spacings of actin and myosin filament-based reflections in x-ray diffraction patterns at high resolution during isometric contraction of frog skeletal muscles and steady lengthening of the active muscles using synchrotron radiation as an intense x-ray source and a storage phosphor plate as a high sensitivity, high resolution area detector. Spacing of the actin meridional reflection at approximately 1/2.7 nm-1, which corresponds to the axial rise per actin subunit in the thin filament, increased about 0.25% during isometric contraction of muscles at full overlap length of thick and thin filaments. The changes in muscles stretched to approximately half overlap of the filaments, when they were scaled linearly up to the full isometric tension, gave an increase of approximately 0.3%. Conversely, the spacing decreased by approximately 0.1% upon activation of muscles at nonoverlap length. Slow stretching of a contracting muscle increased tension and increased this spacing over the isometric contraction value. Scaled up to a 100% tension increase, this corresponds to a approximately 0.26% additional change, consistent with that of the initial isometric contraction. Taken together, the extensibility of the actin filament amounts to 3-4 nm of elongation when a muscle switches from relaxation to maximum isometric contraction. Axial spacings of the layer-line reflections at approximately 1/5.1 nm-1 and approximately 1/5.9 nm-1 corresponding to the pitches of the right- and left-handed genetic helices of the actin filament, showed similar changes to that of the meridional reflection during isometric contraction of muscles at full overlap. The spacing changes of these reflections, which also depend on the mechanical load on the muscle, indicate that elongation is accompanied by slight changes of the actin helical structure possibly because of the axial force exerted by the actomyosin cross-bridges. Additional small spacing changes of the myosin meridional reflections during length changes applied to contracting muscles represented an increase of approximately 0.26% (scaled up to a 100% tension increase) in the myosin periodicity, suggesting that such spacing changes correspond to a tension-related extension of the myosin filaments. Elongation of the myosin filament backbone amounts to approximately 2.1 nm per half sarcomere. The results indicate that a large part (approximately 70%) of the sarcomere compliance of an active muscle is caused by the extensibility of the actin and myosin filaments; 42% of the compliance resides in the actin filaments, and 27% of it is in the myosin filaments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Actins / chemistry*
  • Actins / physiology
  • Actins / ultrastructure
  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Elasticity
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Isometric Contraction / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / chemistry
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / ultrastructure
  • Myosins / chemistry*
  • Myosins / physiology
  • Myosins / ultrastructure
  • Rana catesbeiana
  • Sarcomeres / chemistry
  • Sarcomeres / physiology
  • Sarcomeres / ultrastructure
  • X-Ray Diffraction


  • Actins
  • Myosins