Types of Muscle Tissue

Muscle cells are specialized for contraction. Muscles allow for motions such as walking, and they also facilitate bodily processes such as respiration and digestion. The body contains three types of muscle tissue: skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, and smooth muscle (Figure 1).

The skeletal muscle cells are long and arranged in parallel bands that give the appearance of striations. Each cell has a multiple nuclei. Smooth muscle cells have no striations and only one nuclei per cell. Cardiac muscles are striated but have only one nucleus.

Figure 1. The body contains three types of muscle tissue: skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, and cardiac muscle, visualized here using light microscopy. Smooth muscle cells are short, tapered at each end, and have only one plump nucleus in each. Cardiac muscle cells are branched and striated, but short. The cytoplasm may branch, and they have one nucleus in the center of the cell. (credit: modification of work by NCI, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Skeletal muscle tissue forms skeletal muscles, which attach to bones or skin and control locomotion and any movement that can be consciously controlled. Because it can be controlled by thought, skeletal muscle is also called voluntary muscle. Skeletal muscles are long and cylindrical in appearance; when viewed under a microscope, skeletal muscle tissue has a striped or striated appearance. The striations are caused by the regular arrangement of contractile proteins (actin and myosin). Actin is a globular contractile protein that interacts with myosin for muscle contraction. Skeletal muscle also has multiple nuclei present in a single cell.

Smooth muscle tissue occurs in the walls of hollow organs such as the intestines, stomach, and urinary bladder, and around passages such as the respiratory tract and blood vessels. Smooth muscle has no striations, is not under voluntary control, has only one nucleus per cell, is tapered at both ends, and is called involuntary muscle.

Cardiac muscle tissue is only found in the heart, and cardiac contractions pump blood throughout the body and maintain blood pressure. Like skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle is striated, but unlike skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle cannot be consciously controlled and is called involuntary muscle. It has one nucleus per cell, is branched, and is distinguished by the presence of intercalated disks.

Skeletal Muscle Fiber Structure

Each skeletal muscle fiber is a skeletal muscle cell. These cells are incredibly large, with diameters of up to 100 µm and lengths of up to 30 cm. The plasma membrane of a skeletal muscle fiber is called the sarcolemma. The sarcolemma is the site of action potential conduction, which triggers muscle contraction. Within each muscle fiber are myofibrils—long cylindrical structures that lie parallel to the muscle fiber. Myofibrils run the entire length of the muscle fiber, and because they are only approximately 1.2 µm in diameter, hundreds to thousands can be found inside one muscle fiber. They attach to the sarcolemma at their ends, so that as myofibrils shorten, the entire muscle cell contracts (Figure 2).

Illustration shows a long, tubular skeletal muscle cell that runs the length of a muscle fiber. Bundles of fibers called myofibrils run the length of the cell. The myofibrils have a banded appearance.

Figure 2. A skeletal muscle cell is surrounded by a plasma membrane called the sarcolemma with a cytoplasm called the sarcoplasm. A muscle fiber is composed of many fibrils, packaged into orderly units.

The striated appearance of skeletal muscle tissue is a result of repeating bands of the proteins actin and myosin that are present along the length of myofibrils. Dark A bands and light I bands repeat along myofibrils, and the alignment of myofibrils in the cell causes the entire cell to appear striated or banded.

Illustration shows part of a tubular myofibril, which consists of many sarcomeres. Zigzagging lines, called Z lines, run perpendicular to the fiber. Each sarcomere starts at one Z line and ends at the next. A straight perpendicular line, called an M line, exists halfway between each Z line. Thick filaments extend out from the M lines, parallel to the length of the myofibril. Thin filaments extend from the Z lines, and extend into the space between the thick filaments.

Figure 3. A sarcomere is the region from one Z line to the next Z line. Many sarcomeres are present in a myofibril, resulting in the striation pattern characteristic of skeletal muscle.

Each I band has a dense line running vertically through the middle called a Z disc or Z line. The Z discs mark the border of units called sarcomeres, which are the functional units of skeletal muscle. One sarcomere is the space between two consecutive Z discs and contains one entire A band and two halves of an I band, one on either side of the A band. A myofibril is composed of many sarcomeres running along its length, and as the sarcomeres individually contract, the myofibrils and muscle cells shorten (Figure 3).

Myofibrils are composed of smaller structures called myofilaments. There are two main types of filaments: thick filaments and thin filaments; each has different compositions and locations. Thick filaments occur only in the A band of a myofibril. Thin filaments  attach to a protein in the Z disc called alpha-actinin and occur across the entire length of the I band and partway into the A band. The region at which thick and thin filaments overlap has a dense appearance, as there is little space between the filaments. The middle of the dark band  has a vertical line called the M line, at which accessory proteins hold together thick filaments. Both the Z disc and the M line hold myofilaments in place to maintain the structural arrangement and layering of the myofibril.

Thick and thin filaments are themselves composed of proteins. Thick filaments are composed of the protein myosin. The tail of a myosin molecule connects with other myosin molecules to form the central region of a thick filament near the M line, whereas the heads align on either side of the thick filament where the thin filaments overlap. The primary component of thin filaments is the actin protein. Two other components of the thin filament are tropomyosin and troponin. Actin has binding sites for myosin attachment. Strands of tropomyosin block the binding sites and prevent actin–myosin interactions when the muscles are at rest. Troponin consists of three globular subunits. One subunit binds to tropomyosin, one subunit binds to actin, and one subunit binds Ca2+ ions.

Watch this video showing the organization of muscle fibers.