We have explored the dynamics of intermediate filament assembly and subunit exchange using fluorescently labeled neurofilament proteins and a fluorescence resonance energy transfer assay. Neurofilaments (NFs) are assembled from three highly phosphorylated proteins with molecular masses of 180 (NF-H), 130 (NF-M), and 66 kD (NF-L) of which NF-L forms the structural core. The core component, NF-L, was stoichiometrically labeled at cysteine 321 with fluorescein, coumarin, or biotin-maleimide to produce assembly-competent fluorescent or biotinylated derivatives, respectively. Using coumarin-labeled NF-L as fluorescence donor and fluorescein-labeled NF-L as the fluorescence acceptor, assembly of NF filaments was induced by rapidly raising the NaCl concentration to 170 mM, and the kinetics was followed by the decrease in the donor fluorescence. Assembly of NF-L subunits into filaments does not require nucleotide binding or hydrolysis but is strongly dependent on ionic strength, pH, and temperature. The critical concentration of NF-L, that concentration that remains unassembled at equilibrium with fully formed filaments, is 38 micrograms/ml or 0.6 microM. Under physiological salt conditions NF-L filaments also undergo extensive subunit exchange. Kinetic analysis and evaluation of several possible mechanisms indicate that subunit exchange is preceded by dissociation of subunits from the filament and generation of a kinetically active pool of soluble subunits. Given the concentration of NF-L found in nerve cells and the possibility of regulating this pool, these results provide the first information that intermediate filaments are dynamic structures and that NF-L within the NF complex is in dynamic equilibrium with a small but kinetically active pool of unassembled NF-L units.

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