The Cytoskeleton

Intermediate Filaments and Microtubules

Microtubules are part of the cell’s cytoskeleton, helping the cell resist compression, move vesicles, and separate chromosomes at mitosis.

Learning Objectives

Describe the roles of microtubules as part of the cell’s cytoskeleton

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Microtubules help the cell resist compression, provide a track along which vesicles can move throughout the cell, and are the components of cilia and flagella.
  • Cilia and flagella are hair-like structures that assist with locomotion in some cells, as well as line various structures to trap particles.
  • The structures of cilia and flagella are a “9+2 array,” meaning that a ring of nine microtubules is surrounded by two more microtubules.
  • Microtubules attach to replicated chromosomes during cell division and pull them apart to opposite ends of the pole, allowing the cell to divide with a complete set of chromosomes in each daughter cell.

Key Terms

  • microtubule: Small tubes made of protein and found in cells; part of the cytoskeleton
  • flagellum: a flagellum is a lash-like appendage that protrudes from the cell body of certain prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells
  • cytoskeleton: A cellular structure like a skeleton, contained within the cytoplasm.

Microtubules

As their name implies, microtubules are small hollow tubes. Microtubules, along with microfilaments and intermediate filaments, come under the class of organelles known as the cytoskeleton. The cytoskeleton is the framework of the cell which forms the structural supporting component. Microtubules are the largest element of the cytoskeleton. The walls of the microtubule are made of polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin, two globular proteins. With a diameter of about 25 nm, microtubules are the widest components of the cytoskeleton. They help the cell resist compression, provide a track along which vesicles move through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. Like microfilaments, microtubules can dissolve and reform quickly.

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Micrtubule Structure: Microtubules are hollow, with walls consisting of 13 polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin (right image). The left image shows the molecular structure of the tube.

Microtubules are also the structural elements of flagella, cilia, and centrioles (the latter are the two perpendicular bodies of the centrosome ). In animal cells, the centrosome is the microtubule-organizing center. In eukaryotic cells, flagella and cilia are quite different structurally from their counterparts in prokaryotes.

Intermediate Filaments

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Stained Keratin Intermediate filaments: Keratin cytoskeletal intermediate filaments are concentrated around the edge of the cells and merge into the surface membrane. This network of intermediate filaments from cell to cell holds together tissues like skin.

Intermediate filaments (IFs) are cytoskeletal components found in animal cells. They are composed of a family of related proteins sharing common structural and sequence features. Intermediate filaments have an average diameter of 10 nanometers, which is between that of 7 nm actin (microfilaments), and that of 25 nm microtubules, although they were initially designated ‘intermediate’ because their average diameter is between those of narrower microfilaments (actin) and wider myosin filaments found in muscle cells. Intermediate filaments contribute to cellular structural elements and are often crucial in holding together tissues like skin.

Flagella and Cilia

Flagella (singular = flagellum ) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell (for example, sperm, Euglena). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, many of them extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecia) or substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that trap particulate matter and move it toward your nostrils).

Despite their differences in length and number, flagella and cilia share a common structural arrangement of microtubules called a “9 + 2 array.” This is an appropriate name because a single flagellum or cilium is made of a ring of nine microtubule doublets surrounding a single microtubule doublet in the center.

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Microtubules are the structural component of flagella: This transmission electron micrograph of two flagella shows the 9 + 2 array of microtubules: nine microtubule doublets surround a single microtubule doublet.

Microfilaments

Microfilaments, which are the thinnest part of the cytoskeleton, are used to give shape to the cell and support all of its internal parts.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure and function of microfilaments

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Microfilaments assist with cell movement and are made of a protein called actin.
  • Actin works with another protein called myosin to produce muscle movements, cell division, and cytoplasmic streaming.
  • Microfilaments keep organelles in place within the cell.

Key Terms

  • actin: A globular structural protein that polymerizes in a helical fashion to form an actin filament (or microfilament).
  • filamentous: Having the form of threads or filaments
  • myosin: a large family of motor proteins found in eukaryotic tissues, allowing mobility in muscles

Microfilaments

If all the organelles were removed from a cell, the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm would not be the only components left. Within the cytoplasm there would still be ions and organic molecules, plus a network of protein fibers that help maintain the shape of the cell, secure some organelles in specific positions, allow cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enable unicellular organisms to move independently. This network of protein fibers is known as the cytoskeleton. There are three types of fibers within the cytoskeleton: microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Of the three types of protein fibers in the cytoskeleton, microfilaments are the narrowest. They function in cellular movement, have a diameter of about 7 nm, and are made of two intertwined strands of a globular protein called actin. For this reason, microfilaments are also known as actin filaments.

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Microfilaments are the thinnest component of the cytoskeleton.: Microfilaments are made of two intertwined strands of actin.

Actin is powered by ATP to assemble its filamentous form, which serves as a track for the movement of a motor protein called myosin. This enables actin to engage in cellular events requiring motion such as cell division in animal cells and cytoplasmic streaming, which is the circular movement of the cell cytoplasm in plant cells. Actin and myosin are plentiful in muscle cells. When your actin and myosin filaments slide past each other, your muscles contract.

Microfilaments also provide some rigidity and shape to the cell. They can depolymerize (disassemble) and reform quickly, thus enabling a cell to change its shape and move. White blood cells (your body’s infection-fighting cells) make good use of this ability. They can move to the site of an infection and engulf the pathogen.