To study the organization of the contractile apparatus in smooth muscle and its behavior during shortening, the movement of dense bodies in contracting saponin skinned, isolated cells was analyzed from digital images collected at fixed time intervals. These cells were optically lucent so that punctate structures, identified immunocytochemically as dense bodies, were visible in them with the phase contrast microscope. Methods were adapted and developed to track the bodies and to study their relative motion. Analysis of their tracks or trajectories indicated that the bodies did not move passively as cells shortened and that nearby bodies often had similar patterns of motion. Analysis of the relative motion of the bodies indicated that some bodies were structurally linked to one another or constrained so that the distance between them remained relatively constant during contraction. Such bodies tended to fall into laterally oriented, semirigid groups found at approximately 6-microns intervals along the cell axis. Other dense bodies moved rapidly toward one another axially during contraction. Such bodies were often members of separate semirigid groups. This suggests that the semirigid groups of dense bodies in smooth muscle cells may provide a framework for the attachment of the contractile structures to the cytoskeleton and the cell surface and indicates that smooth muscle may be more well-ordered than previously thought. The methods described here for the analysis of the motion of intracellular structures should be directly applicable to the study of motion in other cell types.

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