Three-dimensional (3-D) helical reconstructions computed from electron micrographs of negatively stained dispersed F-actin filaments invariably revealed two uninterrupted columns of mass forming the "backbone" of the double-helical filament. The contact between neighboring subunits along the thus defined two long-pitch helical strands was spatially conserved and of high mass density, while the intersubunit contact between them was of lower mass density and varied among reconstructions. In contrast, phalloidinstabilized F-actin filaments displayed higher and spatially more conserved mass density between the two long-pitch helical strands, suggesting that this bicyclic hepta-peptide toxin strengthens the intersubunit contact between the two strands. Consistent with this distinct intersubunit bonding pattern, the two long-pitch helical strands of unstabilized filaments were sometimes observed separated from each other over a distance of two to six subunits, suggesting that the intrastrand intersubunit contact is also physically stronger than the interstrand contact. The resolution of the filament reconstructions, extending to 2.5 nm axially and radially, enabled us to reproducibly "cut out" the F-actin subunit which measured 5.5 nm axially by 6.0 nm tangentially by 3.2 nm radially. The subunit is distinctly polar with a massive "base" pointing towards the "barbed" end of the filament, and a slender "tip" defining its "pointed" end (i.e., relative to the "arrowhead" pattern revealed after stoichiometric decoration of the filaments with myosin subfragment 1). Concavities running approximately parallel to the filament axis both on the inner and outer face of the subunit define a distinct cleft separating the subunit into two domains of similar size: an inner domain confined to radii less than or equal to 2.5-nm forms the uninterrupted backbone of the two long-pitch helical strands, and an outer domain placed at radii of 2-5-nm protrudes radially and thus predominantly contributes to the outer part of the massive base. Quantitative evaluation of successive crossover spacings along individual F-actin filaments revealed the deviations from the mean repeat to be compensatory, i.e., short crossovers frequently followed long ones and vice versa. The variable crossover spacings and diameter of the F-actin filament together with the local unraveling of the two long-pitch helical strands are explained in terms of varying amounts of compensatory "lateral slipping" of the two strands past each other roughly perpendicular to the filament axis. This intrinsic disorder of the actin filament may enable the actin moiety to play a more active role in actin-myosin-based force generation than merely act as a rigid passive cable as has hitherto been assumed.

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