Nebulin, a family of giant proteins with size-variants from 600 to 900 kD in various skeletal muscles, have been proposed to constitute a set of inextensible filaments anchored at the Z line (Wang, K., and J. Wright. 1988. J. Cell Biol. 107:2199-2212). This newly discovered filament of the skeletal muscle sarcomere is an attractive candidate for a length-regulating template of thin filaments. To evaluate this hypothesis, we address the question of coextensiveness of nebulin and the thin filament by searching for a correlation between the size of nebulin variants and the length distribution of the thin filaments in several skeletal muscles. A positive linear correlation indeed exists for a group of six skeletal muscles that display narrow thin filament length distributions. To examine the molecular and architectural differences of nebulin size-variants, we carried out immunoelectron microscopic studies to map out epitope profiles of nebulin variants in these muscles. For this purpose, a panel of mAbs to distinct nebulin epitopes was produced against rabbit nebulin purified by an improved protocol. Epitope profiles of nebulin variants in three skeletal muscles revealed that (a) nebulin is inextensible since nebulin epitopes maintain a fixed distance to the Z line irrespective of the degree of sarcomere stretch; (b) a single nebulin polypeptide spans a minimal distance of 0.9 microns from the Z line; (c) nebulin contains repeating epitopes that are spaced at 40 nm or its multiples; (d) nebulin repeats coincide with thin filament periodicity; (e) nebulin variants differ mainly at either or both ends; and (f) nebulin remains in the sarcomere in actin-free sarcomeres produced by gelsolin treatment. Together, these data suggest that nebulin is an inextensible full-length molecular filament that is coextensive with thin filaments in skeletal muscles. We propose that nebulin acts as a length-regulating template that determines thin filament length by matching its large number of 40-nm repeating domains with an equal number of helical repeats of the actin filaments.

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