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Cellular biopolymers can exhibit significant compositional heterogeneities as a result of the non-uniform binding of associated proteins, the formation of microstructural defects during filament assembly, or the imperfect bundling of filaments into composite structures of variable diameter. These can lead to significant variations in the local mechanical properties of biopolymers along their length. Existing spectral analysis methods assume filament homogeneity and therefore report only a single average stiffness for the entire filament. However, understanding how local effects modulate biopolymer mechanics in a spatially resolved manner is essential to understanding how binding and bundling proteins regulate biopolymer stiffness and function in cellular contexts. Here, we present a new method to determine the spatially varying material properties of individual complex biopolymers from the observation of passive thermal fluctuations of the filament conformation. We develop new statistical mechanics-based approaches for heterogeneous filaments that estimate local bending elasticities as a function of the filament arc-length. We validate this methodology using simulated polymers with known stiffness distributions, and find excellent agreement between derived and expected values. We then determine the bending elasticity of microtubule filaments of variable composition generated by repeated rounds of tubulin polymerization using either GTP or GMPCPP, a nonhydrolyzable GTP analog. Again, we find excellent agreement between mechanical and compositional heterogeneities.
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