Keratin filament suspensions show unique micromechanical properties

Linglei Ma, Jingyuan Xu, Pierre A. Coulombe, Denis Wirtz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


All epithelial cells feature a prominent keratin intermediate filament (IF) network in their cytoplasm. Studies in transgenic mice and in patients with inherited epithelial fragility syndromes showed that a major function of keratin IFs is to provide mechanical support to epithelial cell sheets. Yet the micromechanical properties of keratin IFs themselves remain unknown. We used rheological methods to assess the properties of suspensions of epidermal type I and type II keratin IFs and of vimentin, a type III IF polymer. We find that both types of IFs form gels with properties akin to visco-elastic solids. With increasing deformation they display strain hardening and yield relatively rapidly. Remarkably, both types of gels recover their preshear properties upon cessation of the deformation. Repeated imposition of small deformations gives rise to a progressively stiffer gel for keratin but not vimentin IFs. The visco-elastic moduli of both gels show a weak dependence upon the frequency of the input shear stress and the concentration of the polymer, suggesting that both steric and nonsteric interactions between individual polymers contribute to the observed mechanical properties. In support of this, the length of individual polymers contributes only modestly to the properties of IF gels. Collectively these properties render IFs unique among cytoskeletal polymers and have strong implications for their function in vivo.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19145-19151
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number27
StatePublished - Jul 2 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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