All intermediate filament (IF) proteins share a highly conserved sequence motif at the COOH-terminal end of their rod domains. We have studied the influence of a 20-residue peptide, representing the consensus motif on filament formation and stability. Addition of the peptide at a 10-20-fold molar excess over keratins K8 plus K18 had a severe effect on subsequent IF assembly. Filaments displayed a rough surface and variable diameters with a substantial amount present in unravelled form. At higher peptide concentration (50-100-fold molar excess), IF formation was completely inhibited and instead only loose aggregates of "globular" particles were formed. The peptide also influenced performed keratin IF in a dose-dependent manner. While a three-fold molar excess was sufficient to cause partial fragmentation of IF, a 50-fold molar excess caused complete disassembly within 5 min. Loosely associated protofibrils, short needlelike IF fragments, and aggregates of globular particles were detected. The motif peptide also caused the disassembly of filaments formed by desmin, a type III IF protein. Peptide concentrations and incubation times required for complete disassembly were somewhat higher than for the filaments containing K8 plus K18. A 50-fold molar excess was sufficient to cause complete disassembly within 1 h. Peptides unrelated in sequence to the motif did not interfere with filament formation or stability even when present for more than 12 h at a 100-fold molar excess. The results suggest that the motif sequence normally binds to a specific acceptor site for which the motif peptide can successfully compete. Taken together with current models of IF structure the results indicate that normal binding of the motif sequence to its acceptor must play an essential role in IF formation, possibly by directing the proper alignment of neighboring tetramers or protofilaments. Finally we show that in vitro formed IF are much more sensitive and dynamic strutures than previously thought.

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