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J Cell Biol. 1996 July 1; 134(1): 53–66.
PMCID: PMC2120914

Myosin filament structure in vertebrate smooth muscle


The in vivo structure of the myosin filaments in vertebrate smooth muscle is unknown. Evidence from purified smooth muscle myosin and from some studies of intact smooth muscle suggests that they may have a nonhelical, side-polar arrangement of crossbridges. However, the bipolar, helical structure characteristic of myosin filaments in striated muscle has not been disproved for smooth muscle. We have used EM to investigate this question in a functionally diverse group of smooth muscles (from the vascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and visual systems) from mammalian, amphibian, and avian species. Intact muscle under physiological conditions, rapidly frozen and then freeze substituted, shows many myosin filaments with a square backbone in transverse profile. Transverse sections of fixed, chemically skinned muscles also show square backbones and, in addition, reveal projections (crossbridges) on only two opposite sides of the square. Filaments gently isolated from skinned smooth muscles and observed by negative staining show crossbridges with a 14.5-nm repeat projecting in opposite directions on opposite sides of the filament. Such filaments subjected to low ionic strength conditions show bare filament ends and an antiparallel arrangement of myosin tails along the length of the filament. All of these observations are consistent with a side-polar structure and argue against a bipolar, helical crossbridge arrangement. We conclude that myosin filaments in all smooth muscles, regardless of function, are likely to be side-polar. Such a structure could be an important factor in the ability of smooth muscles to contract by large amounts.

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