Reading: Microfilaments

This illustration shows two actin filaments wound together. Each actin filament is composed of many actin subunits connected together to form a chain.

Figure 1. Microfilaments are made of two intertwined strands of actin.

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 (Figure 1). For this reason, microfilaments are also known as actin filaments.

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 phagocytize the pathogen.

Look below see an example of a white blood cell in action. Watch this short time-lapse video of the cell capturing two bacteria. It engulfs one and then moves on to the other.