Neurofilaments (NFs), composed of three distinct subunits NF-L, NF-M, and NF-H, are neuron-specific intermediate filaments present in most mature neurons. Using DNA transfection and mice expressing NF transgenes, we find that despite the ability of NF-L alone to assemble into short filaments in vitro NF-L cannot form filament arrays in vivo after expression either in cultured cells or in transgenic oligodendrocytes that otherwise do not contain a cytoplasmic intermediate filament (IF) array. Instead, NF-L aggregates into punctate or sheet like structures. Similar nonfilamentous structures are also formed when NF-M or NF-H is expressed alone. The competence of NF-L to assemble into filaments is fully restored by coexpression of NF-M or NF-H to a level approximately 10% of that of NF-L. Deletion of the head or tail domain of NF-M or substitution of the NF-H tail onto an NF-L subunit reveals that restoration of in vivo NF-L assembly competence requires an interaction provided by the NF-M or NF-H head domains. We conclude that, contrary to the expectation drawn from earlier in vitro assembly studies, NF-L is not sufficient to assemble an extended filament network in an in vivo context and that neurofilaments are obligate heteropolymers requiring NF-L and NF-M or NF-H.

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