The distribution of the intermediate filament proteins vimentin and desmin in developing and mature myotubes in vivo was studied by single and double immunoelectron microscopic labeling of ultrathin frozen sections of iliotibialis muscle in 7-21-d-old chick embryos, and neonatal and 1-d-old postnatal chicks. This work is an extension of our previous immunofluorescence studies of the same system (Tokuyasu, K. T., P. A. Maher and S. J. Singer, 1984, J. Cell Biol., 98:1961-1972). In immature myotubes of 7-11-d embryos, significant labeling for desmin and vimentin was found only in intermediate filaments, and these proteins coexisted in the same individual filaments. Each of the two proteins was present in irregular clusters along the entire length of a filament. No exclusively vimentin- or desmin-containing filaments were observed at this stage. In the early myotubes, the intermediate filaments were essentially all longitudinally oriented, even when they contained three times as much desmin as vimentin. No special relationship was recognized between the dispositions of the filaments and the organization of the myofibrils. Occasionally, several myofibrils were already aligned in lateral registry at this early stage, but labeling for desmin and vimentin was largely absent at the level of the Z bands. Instead, the Z bands appeared to be covered by elements of the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The confinement of intermediate filaments to the level of the Z bands occurred in the myotubes of later embryos after the extensive lateral registry of the Z bands. Thus, intermediate filaments are unlikely to play a primary role in producing the lateral registration of myofibrils during myogenesis, but may be important in determining the polarization of the early myotube and the alignment of its organelles. Throughout the development of myotubes, desmin and vimentin remained in the form of intermediate filaments, although the number of filaments per unit volume of myotube appeared to be reduced as myofibrils increased in number in maturing myotubes. This observation indicated that the transverse orientation of intermediate filaments in mature myotubes does not result from the de novo polymerization of subunits from Z band to Z band, but a continuous shifting of the positions and directions of intact filaments.

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