Thread cell differentiation in the slime gland of the Pacific hagfish Eptatretus stouti has been studied using light microscopy and scanning and transmission electron microscopy. Thread cell differentiation is remarkable in that the life history of the cell is largely dedicated to the production of a single, tapered, cylindrical, highly coiled, and precisely packaged cytoplasmic thread that may attain lengths of 60 cm and diameters approaching 1.5 micron. Each tapered thread, in turn, is comprised almost entirely of large numbers of intermediate filaments (IFs) bundled in parallel. During differentiation of the thread, the IFs become progressively more tightly packed. Various numbers of microtubules (MTs) are found among the bundled IFs during differentiation of the thread but disappear during the latter stages of thread differentiation. Observations of regularly spaced dots in longitudinal bisections of developing threads, diagonal striations in tangential sections of developing threads, and circumferentially oriented, filament-like structures observed at the periphery of developing threads cut in cross section have led us to postulate a helically oriented component(s) wrapped around the periphery of the developing thread. The enormous size of the fully differentiated thread cell, its apparent singular dedication to the production of IFs, the ease of isolating and purifying the threads and IF subunits (see accompanying paper), and the unique position of the hagfish in the phylogenetic scheme of vertebrate evolution all contribute to the attractiveness of the hagfish slime gland thread cell as a potential model system for studying IF subunit synthesis, IF formation from IF subunits, aggregation of IFs into IF bundles and the interaction(s) of IFs and MTs.

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