The actin-based cytoskeleton is a dynamic component of living cells with major structural and contractile properties involved in fundamental cellular processes. The action of actin-binding proteins can decrease or increase the gel structure. Changes in the actin-based cytoskeleton have long been thought to modulate the myosin II-based contractions involved in these cellular processes, but there has been some debate concerning whether maximal gelation increases or decreases contractile activity. To address this question, we have examined how contractile activity is modulated by the extent of actin gelation. The model system consists of physiologically relevant concentrations and molar ratios of actin filaments (whose lengths are controlled by gelsolin), the actin-cross-linking protein filamin, and smooth muscle myosin II. This system has been studied at the macroscopic and light microscopic levels to relate the gel structure to the rate of contraction. We present results which show that while a minimal amount of structure is necessary to transmit the contractile force, increasing the gel structure inhibits the rate of contraction, despite an increase in the actin-activated Mg(2+)-ATPase activity of myosin. Decreasing the total myosin concentration also inhibits the rate of contraction. Application of cytochalasin D to one side of the contractile network increases the rate of contraction and also induces movement comparable to flare streaming observed in isolated amoeba cytoplasm. These results are interpreted relative to current models of the relationship between the state of gelation and contraction and to the potential effects of such a relationship in the living cell.

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