We have used a monoclonal antibody against desmin to examine the assembly of intermediate filaments (IF) from their building blocks, the tetrameric protofilaments. The antibody, designated D76, does not cross react with any other IF proteins (Danto, S.I., and D.A. Fischman. 1984. J. Cell Biol. 98:2179-2191). It binds to a region amino-terminal to cys-324 of avian desmin that is resistant to chymotrypsin and trypsin digestion, and in the electron microscope appears to bind to the ends of tetrameric protofilaments. In combination, these findings suggest that the epitope of the antibody resides at the amino-terminal end of the alpha-helical rod domain. Preincubation of desmin protofilaments with an excess of D76 antibodies blocks their subsequent assembly into IF. In the presence of sub-stoichiometric amounts of antibodies, IF are assembled from protofilaments but they are morphologically aberrant in that (a) they are capped by IgG molecules at one or both ends; (b) they are unraveled to varying degree, revealing a characteristic right-handed helical arrangement of sub-filamentous strands of different diameters. The antibody binds only to the ends but not along the length of desmin IF. The most straightforward explanation for this is that the epitope resides in a part of the desmin molecule that becomes buried within the core of the filament upon polymerization and is therefore inaccessible to the antibody.

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