Current concepts of the developmentally controlled multigene family of intermediate filament (IF) proteins expect the origin of their complexity in evolutionary precursors preceding all vertebrate classes. Among invertebrates, however, firm ultrastructural as well as molecular documentation of IFs is restricted to some giant axons and to epithelia of a few molluscs and annelids. As Ascaris lumbricoides is easily dissected into clean tissues, IF expression in this large nematode was analyzed by electron microscopic and biochemical procedures and a monoclonal antibody reacting with all mammalian IF proteins. We document for the first time the presence of IFs in muscle cells of an invertebrate. They occur in three muscle types (irregular striated pharynx muscle, obliquely striated body muscle, uterus smooth muscle). IFs are also found in the epithelia studied (syncytial epidermis, intestine, ovary, testis). Immunoblots on muscles, pharynx, intestine, uterus, and epidermis identify a pair of polypeptides (with apparent molecular masses of 71 and 63 kD) as IF constituents. In vitro reconstitution of filaments was obtained with the proteins purified from body muscle. In the small nematode Caenorhabditis elegans IF proteins are so far found only in the massive desmosome-anchored tonofilament bundles which traverse a special epithelial cell type, the marginal cells of the pharynx. We speculate that IFs may occur in most but perhaps not all invertebrates and that they may not occur in all cells in large amounts. As electron micrographs of the epidermis of a planarian--a member of the Platyhelminthes--reveal IFs, the evolutionary origin of this cytoplasmic structure can be expected either among the lowest metazoa or already in some unicellular eukaryotes.

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