Eukaryotic cells have an internal cytoskeleton made of microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. This matrix of fibers and tubes provides structural support as well as a network over which materials can be transported within the cell and on which organelles can be anchored. For example, the process of exocytosis involves the movement of a vesicle via the cytoskeletal network to the plasma membrane, where it can release its contents.
Microfilaments are composed of two intertwined strands of actin, each composed of actin monomers forming filamentous cables 6 nm in diameter. The actin filaments work together with motor proteins, like myosin, to effect muscle contraction in animals or the amoeboid movement of some eukaryotic microbes. In ameboid organisms, actin can be found in two forms: a stiffer, polymerized, gel form and a more fluid, unpolymerized soluble form. Actin in the gel form creates stability in the ectoplasm, the gel-like area of cytoplasm just inside the plasma membrane of ameboid protozoans.
Temporary extensions of the cytoplasmic membrane called pseudopodia (meaning “false feet”) are produced through the forward flow of soluble actin filaments into the pseudopodia, followed by the gel-sol cycling of the actin filaments, resulting in cell motility. Once the cytoplasm extends outward, forming a pseudopodium, the remaining cytoplasm flows up to join the leading edge, thereby creating forward locomotion. Beyond amoeboid movement, microfilaments are also involved in a variety of other processes in eukaryotic cells, including cytoplasmic streaming (the movement or circulation of cytoplasm within the cell), cleavage furrow formation during cell division, and muscle movement in animals. These functions are the result of the dynamic nature of microfilaments, which can polymerize and depolymerize relatively easily in response to cellular signals, and their interactions with molecular motors in different types of eukaryotic cells.
Intermediate filaments are a diverse group of cytoskeletal filaments that act as cables within the cell. They are termed “intermediate” because their 10-nm diameter is thicker than that of actin but thinner than that of microtubules. They are composed of several strands of polymerized subunits that, in turn, are made up of a wide variety of monomers. Intermediate filaments tend to be more permanent in the cell and maintain the position of the nucleus. They also form the nuclear lamina (lining or layer) just inside the nuclear envelope. Additionally, intermediate filaments play a role in anchoring cells together in animal tissues. The intermediate filament protein desmin is found in desmosomes, the protein structures that join muscle cells together and help them resist external physical forces. The intermediate filament protein keratin is a structural protein found in hair, skin, and nails.
Microtubules are a third type of cytoskeletal fiber composed of tubulin dimers (α tubulin and β tubulin). These form hollow tubes 23 nm in diameter that are used as girders within the cytoskeleton. Like microfilaments, microtubules are dynamic and have the ability to rapidly assemble and disassemble. Microtubules also work with motor proteins (such as dynein and kinesin) to move organelles and vesicles around within the cytoplasm. Additionally, microtubules are the main components of eukaryotic flagella and cilia, composing both the filament and the basal body components.
In addition, microtubules are involved in cell division, forming the mitotic spindle that serves to separate chromosomes during mitosis and meiosis. The mitotic spindle is produced by two centrosomes, which are essentially microtubule-organizing centers, at opposite ends of the cell. Each centrosome is composed of a pair of centrioles positioned at right angles to each other, and each centriole is an array of nine parallel microtubules arranged in triplets.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology