The Cytoskeleton

Microfilaments

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 comprised of two globular protein intertwined strands, which we call actin (Figure). For this reason, we also call microfilaments actin filaments.

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

ATP powers actin to assemble its filamentous form, which serves as a track for the movement of a motor protein we call myosin. This enables actin to engage in cellular events requiring motion, such as cell division in eukaryotic cells and cytoplasmic streaming, which is the cell cytoplasm's circular movement 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 an infection site and phagocytize the pathogen.

Link to Learning

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

2 of 7