The fiber cells of the eye lens possess a unique cytoskeletal system known as the "beaded-chain filaments" (BFs). BFs consist of filensin and phakinin, two recently characterized intermediate filament (IF) proteins. To examine the organization and the assembly of these heteropolymeric IFs, we have performed a series of in vitro polymerization studies and transfection experiments. Filaments assembled from purified filensin and phakinin exhibit the characteristic 19-21-nm periodicity seen in many types of IFs upon low angle rotary shadowing. However, quantitative mass-per-length (MPL) measurements indicate that filensin/phakinin filaments comprise two distinct and dissociable components: a core filament and a peripheral filament moiety. Consistent with a nonuniform organization, visualization of unfixed and unstained specimens by scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) reveals the the existence of a central filament which is decorated by regularly spaced 12-15-nm-diam beads. Our data suggest that the filamentous core is composed of phakinin, which exhibits a tendency to self-assemble into filament bundles, whereas the beads contain filensin/phakinin hetero-oligomers. Filensin and phakinin copolymerize and form filamentous structures when expressed transiently in cultured cells. Experiments in IF-free SW13 cells reveal that coassembly of the lens-specific proteins in vivo does not require a preexisting IF system. In epithelial MCF-7 cells de novo forming filaments appear to grow from distinct foci and organize as thick, fibrous laminae which line the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope. However, filament assembly in CHO and SV40-transformed lens-epithelial cells (both of which are fibroblast-like) yields radial networks which codistribute with the endogenous vimentin IFs. These observations document that the filaments formed by lens-specific IF proteins are structurally distinct from ordinary cytoplasmic IFs. Furthermore, the results suggest that the spatial arrangement of filensin/phakinin filaments in vivo is subject to regulation by host-specific factors. These factors may involve cytoskeletal networks (e.g., vimentin IFs) and/or specific sites associated with the cellular membranes.

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