Confocal laser scanning microscopy of isolated and antibody-labeled avian gizzard smooth muscle cells has revealed the global organization of the contractile and cytoskeletal elements. The cytoskeleton, marked by antibodies to desmin and filamin is composed of a mainly longitudinal, meandering and branched system of fibrils that contrasts with the plait-like, interdigitating arrangement of linear fibrils of the contractile apparatus, labeled with antibodies to myosin and tropomyosin. Although desmin and filamin were colocalized in the body of the cell, filamin antibodies labeled additionally the vinculin-containing surface plaques. In confocal optical sections the contractile fibrils showed a continuous label for myosin for at least 5 microns along their length: there was no obvious or regular interruption of label as might be expected for registered myosin filaments. The cytoplasmic dense bodies, labeled with antibodies to alpha-actinin exhibited a regular, diagonal arrangement in both extended cells and in cells shortened in solution to one-fifth of their extended length: after the same shortening, the fibrils of the cytoskeleton that showed colocalization with the dense bodies in extended cells became crumpled and disordered. It is concluded that the dense bodies serve as coupling elements between the cytoskeletal and contractile systems. After extraction with Triton X-100, isolated cells bound so firmly to a glass substrate that they were unable to shorten as a whole when exposed to exogenous Mg ATP. Instead, they contracted internally, producing integral of 10 regularly spaced contraction nodes along their length. On the basis of differences of actin distribution two types of nodes could be distinguished: actin-positive nodes, in which actin straddled the node, and actin-negative nodes, characterized by an actin-free center flanked by actin fringes of 4.5 microns minimum length on either side. Myosin was concentrated in the center of the node in both cases. The differences in node morphology could be correlated with different degrees of coupling of the contractile with the cytoskeletal elements, effected by a preparation-dependent variability of proteolysis of the cells. The nodes were shown to be closely related to the supercontracted cell fragments shown in the accompanying paper (Small et al., 1990) and furnished further evidence for long actin filaments in smooth muscle. Further, the segmentation of the contractile elements pointed to a hierarchial organization of the myofilaments governed by as yet undetected elements.

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