Neurofilaments are the major cytoskeletal elements in the axon that take highly ordered structures composed of parallel arrays of 10-nm filaments linked to each other with frequent cross-bridges, and they are believed to maintain a highly polarized neuronal cell shape. Here we report the function of rat NF-M in this characteristic neurofilament assembly. Transfection experiments were done in an insect Sf9 cell line lacking endogenous intermediate filaments. NF-L and NF-M coassemble to form bundles of 10-nm filaments packed in a parallel manner with frequent cross-bridges resembling the neurofilament domains in the axon when expressed together in Sf9 cells. Considering the fact that the expression of either NF-L or NF-M alone in these cells results in neither formation of any ordered network of 10-nm filaments nor cross-bridge structures, NF-M plays a crucial role in this parallel filament assembly. In the case of NF-H the carboxyl-tail domain has been shown to constitute the cross-bridge structures. The similarity in molecular architecture between NF-M and NF-H suggests that the carboxyl-terminal tail domain of NF-M also constitutes cross-bridges. To examine this and to further investigate the function of the carboxyl-terminal tail domain of NF-M, we made various deletion mutants that lacked part of their tail domains, and we expressed these with NF-L. From this deletion mutant analysis, we conclude that the carboxyl-terminal tail domain of NF-M has two distinct functions. First, it is the structural component of cross-bridges, and these cross-bridges serve to control the spacing between core filaments. Second, the portion of the carboxyl-terminal tail domain of NF-M that is directly involved in cross-bridge formation affects the core filament assembly by helping them to elongate longitudinally so that they become straight.

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