We have determined the molecular defect of the Drosophila melanogaster myosin heavy chain (MHC) mutation Mhc and the mutation's effect on indirect flight muscle, jump muscle, and larval intersegmental muscle. We show that the Mhc1 mutation is essentially a null allele which results in the dominant-flightless and recessive-lethal phenotypes associated with this mutant (Mogami, K., P. T. O'Donnell, S. I. Bernstein, T. R. F. Wright, C. P. Emerson, Jr. 1986. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 83:1393-1397). The mutation is a 101-bp deletion in the MHC gene which removes most of exon 5 and the intron that precedes it. S1 nuclease mapping indicates that mutant transcripts follow two alternative processing pathways. Both pathways result in the production of mature transcripts with altered reading frames, apparently yielding unstable, truncated MHC proteins. Interestingly, the preferred splicing pathway uses the more distal of two available splice donor sites. We present the first ultrastrutural characterization of a completely MHC-null muscle and show that it lacks any discernable thick filaments. Sarcomeres in these muscles are completely disorganized suggesting that thick filaments play a critical role in sarcomere assembly. To understand why the Mhc1 mutation severely disrupts indirect flight muscle and jump muscle function in heterozygotes, but does not seriously affect the function of other muscle types, we examined the muscle ultrastructure of Mhc1/+ heterozygotes. We find that these organisms have a nearly 50% reduction in the number of thick filaments in indirect flight muscle, jump muscle, and larval intersegmental muscle. In addition, aberrantly shaped thick filaments are common in the jump muscle and larval intersegmental muscle. We suggest that the differential sensitivity of muscle function to the Mhc1 mutation is a consequence of the unique myofilament arrays in each of these muscles. The highly variable myofilament array of larval intersegmental muscle makes its function relatively insensitive to changes in thick filament number and morphology. Conversely, the rigid double hexagonal lattice of the indirect flight muscle, and the organized lattice of the jump muscle cannot be perturbed without interfering with the specialized and evolutionarily more complex functions they perform.

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