Reading: Intermediate Filaments

Intermediate filaments are made of several strands of fibrous proteins that are wound together (Figure 1). These elements of the cytoskeleton get their name from the fact that their diameter, 8 to 10 nm, is between those of microfilaments and microtubules.

This illustration shows 10 intermediate filament fibers bundled together.

Figure 1. Intermediate filaments consist of several intertwined strands of fibrous proteins.

Intermediate filaments have no role in cell movement. Their function is purely structural. They bear tension, thus maintaining the shape of the cell, and anchor the nucleus and other organelles in place. Figure 2 shows how intermediate filaments create a supportive scaffolding inside the cell.

The intermediate filaments are the most diverse group of cytoskeletal elements. Several types of fibrous proteins are found in the intermediate filaments. You are probably most familiar with keratin, the fibrous protein that strengthens your hair, nails, and the epidermis of the skin.

Microfilaments line the inside of the plasma membrane, whereas microfilaments radiate out from the center of the cell. Intermediate filaments form a network throughout the cell that holds organelles in place.

Figure 2. Microfilaments thicken the cortex around the inner edge of a cell; like rubber bands, they resist tension. Microtubules are found in the interior of the cell where they maintain cell shape by resisting compressive forces. Intermediate filaments are found throughout the cell and hold organelles in place.