All cells, from simple bacteria to complex eukaryotes, possess a cytoskeleton composed of different types of protein elements, including microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. The cytoskeleton serves a variety of purposes: provides rigidity and shape to the cell, facilitates cellular movement, anchors the nucleus and other organelles in place, moves vesicles through the cell, and pulls replicated chromosomes to the poles of a dividing cell. These protei elements are also integral to the movement of centrioles, flagella, and cilia.

 Microfilaments

If you were to remove all the organelles from a cell, would the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm be the only components left? No. Within the cytoplasm, there would still be ions and organic molecules, plus a network of protein fibers that help maintain the shape of the cell, secure some organelles in specific positions, allow cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enable cells within multicellular organisms to move. Collectively, this network of protein fibers is known as the cytoskeleton. There are three types of fibers within the cytoskeleton: microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Here, we will examine each.

Microfilaments thicken the cortex around the inner edge of a cell; like rubber bands, they resist tension. Microtubules are found in the interior of the cell where they maintain cell shape by resisting compressive forces. Intermediate filaments are found throughout the cell and hold organelles in place.

Of the three types of protein fibers in the cytoskeleton, microfilaments are the narrowest. They function in cellular movement, have a diameter of about 7 nm, and are made of two intertwined strands of a globular protein called actin. For this reason, microfilaments are also known as actin filaments.

Microfilaments are made of two intertwined strands of actin.

Actin is powered by ATP to assemble its filamentous form, which serves as a track for the movement of a motor protein called myosin. This enables actin to engage in cellular events requiring motion, such as cell division in eukaryotic cells and cytoplasmic streaming, which is the circular movement of the cell cytoplasm in plant cells. Actin and myosin are plentiful in muscle cells. When your actin and myosin filaments slide past each other, your muscles contract.

Microfilaments also provide some rigidity and shape to the cell. They can depolymerize (disassemble) and reform quickly, thus enabling a cell to change its shape and move. White blood cells (your body’s infection-fighting cells) make good use of this ability. They can move to the site of an infection and phagocytize the pathogen.

Intermediate Filaments

Intermediate filaments are made of several strands of fibrous proteins that are wound together. These elements of the cytoskeleton get their name from the fact that their diameter, 8 to 10 nm, is between those of microfilaments and microtubules.

Intermediate filaments consist of several intertwined strands of fibrous proteins.

Intermediate filaments have no role in cell movement. Their function is purely structural. They bear tension, thus maintaining the shape of the cell, and anchor the nucleus and other organelles in place. The first figure shows how intermediate filaments create a supportive scaffolding inside the cell.


The intermediate filaments are the most diverse group of cytoskeletal elements. Several types of fibrous proteins are found in the intermediate filaments. You are probably most familiar with keratin, the fibrous protein that strengthens your hair, nails, and the epidermis of the skin.

Microtubules

As their name implies, microtubules are small hollow tubes. The walls of the microtubule are made of polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin, two globular proteins. With a diameter of about 25 nm, microtubules are the widest components of the cytoskeleton. They help the cell resist compression, provide a track along which vesicles move through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. Like microfilaments, microtubules can disassemble and reform quickly.

Microtubules are hollow. Their walls consist of 13 polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin (right image). The left image shows the molecular structure of the tube.

Microtubules are also the structural elements of flagella, cilia, and centrioles (the latter are the two perpendicular bodies of the centrosome). In fact, in animal cells, the centrosome is the microtubule-organizing center. In eukaryotic cells, flagella and cilia are quite different structurally from their counterparts in prokaryotes, as discussed below.

Flagella and Cilia

To refresh your memory, flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell (for example, sperm, Euglena). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, many of them extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecia) or substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that trap particulate matter and move it toward your nostrils.)

Despite their differences in length and number, flagella and cilia share a common structural arrangement of microtubules called a “9 + 2 array.” This is an appropriate name because a single flagellum or cilium is made of a ring of nine microtubule doublets, surrounding a single microtubule doublet in the center.

This transmission electron micrograph of two flagella shows the 9 + 2 array of microtubules: nine microtubule doublets surround a single microtubule doublet. (credit: modification of work by Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Components of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Cell
Component

Function

Present in
Prokaryotes?

Present
in
Animal
Cells?

Present
in Plant
Cells?

Golgi apparatus

Modifies, sorts, tags, packages, and
distributes lipids and proteins

No Yes Yes
Cytoskeleton

Maintains cell’s shape, secures organelles in
specific positions, allows cytoplasm and
vesicles to move within cell, and enables
unicellular organisms to move independently

Yes Yes Yes
Flagella Cellular locomotion Some Some

No, except
for some
plant sperm
cells.

Cilia

Cellular locomotion, movement of particles
along extracellular surface of plasma
membrane, and filtration

Some Some No

Plasma
membrane

Separates cell from external environment;
controls passage of organic molecules, ions,
water, oxygen, and wastes into and out of
cell

Yes Yes Yes
Cytoplasm

Provides turgor pressure to plant cells as
fluid inside the central vacuole; site of many
metabolic reactions; medium in which
organelles are found

Yes Yes Yes
Nucleolus

Darkened area within the nucleus where
ribosomal subunits are synthesized.

No Yes Yes
Nucleus

Cell organelle that houses DNA and directs
synthesis of ribosomes and proteins

No Yes Yes
Ribosomes Protein synthesis Yes Yes Yes
Mitochondria ATP production/cellular respiration No Yes Yes
Peroxisomes

Oxidizes and thus breaks down fatty acids
and amino acids, and detoxifies poisons

No Yes Yes

Vesicles and
vacuoles

Storage and transport; digestive function in
plant cells

No Yes Yes
Centrosome

Unspecified role in cell division in animal
cells; source of microtubules in animal cells

No Yes No
Lysosomes

Digestion of macromolecules; recycling of
worn-out organelles

No Yes No
Cell wall

Protection, structural support and
maintenance of cell shape

Yes, primarily
peptidoglycan

No

Yes,
primarily
cellulose

Chloroplasts Photosynthesis No No Yes

Endoplasmic
reticulum

Modifies proteins and synthesizes lipids No Yes Yes

The cytoskeleton has three different types of protein elements. From narrowest to widest, they are the microfilaments (actin filaments), intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Microfilaments are often associated with myosin. They provide rigidity and shape to the cell and facilitate cellular movements. Intermediate filaments bear tension and anchor the nucleus and other organelles in place. Microtubules help the cell resist compression, serve as tracks for motor proteins that move vesicles through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. They are also the structural element of centrioles, flagella, and cilia.

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