Electron microscopy was used to study the positional stability of thick filaments in isometrically contracting skinned rabbit psoas muscle as a function of sarcomere length at 7 degrees C. After calcium activation at a sarcomere length of 2.6 micron, where resting stiffness is low, sarcomeres become nonuniform in length. The dispersion in sarcomere length is complete by the time maximum tension is reached. A-bands generally move from their central position and continue moving toward one of the Z-discs after tension has reached a plateau at its maximum level. The lengths of the thick and thin filaments remain constant during this movement. The extent of A-band movement during contraction depends on the final length of the individual sarcomere. After prolonged activation, all sarcomeres between 1.9 and 2.5 micron long exhibit A-bands that are adjacent to a Z-disc, with no intervening I-band. Sarcomeres 2.6 or 2.7 micron long exhibit a partial movement of A-bands. At longer sarcomere lengths, where the resting stiffness exceeds the slope of the active tension-length relation, the A-bands remain perfectly centered during contraction. Sarcomere symmetry and length uniformity are restored upon relaxation. These results indicate that the central position of the thick filaments in the resting sarcomere becomes unstable upon activation. In addition, they provide evidence that the elastic titin filaments, which join thick filaments to Z-discs, produce almost all of the resting tension in skinned rabbit psoas fibers and act to resist the movement of thick filaments away from the center of the sarcomere during contraction.

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