In single smooth muscle cells, shortening velocity slows continuously during the course of an isotonic (fixed force) contraction (Warshaw, D.M. 1987. J. Gen. Physiol. 89:771-789). To distinguish among several possible explanations for this slowing, single smooth muscle cells were isolated from the gastric muscularis of the toad (Bufo marinus) and attached to an ultrasensitive force transducer and a length displacement device. Cells were stimulated electrically and produced maximum stress of 144 mN/mm2. Cell force was then reduced to and maintained at preset fractions of maximum, and cell shortening was allowed to occur. Cell stiffness, a measure of relative numbers of attached crossbridges, was measured during isotonic shortening by imposing 50-Hz sinusoidal force oscillations. Continuous slowing of shortening velocity was observed during isotonic shortening at all force levels. This slowing was not related to the time after the onset of stimulation or due to reduced isometric force generating capacity. Stiffness did not change significantly over the course of an isotonic shortening response, suggesting that the observed slowing was not the result of reduced numbers of cycling crossbridges. Furthermore, isotonic shortening velocity was better described as a function of the extent of shortening than as a function of the time after the onset of the release. Therefore, we propose that slowing during isotonic shortening in single isolated smooth muscle cells is the result of an internal load that opposes shortening and increases as cell length decreases.

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