Tuning Intermediate Filament Mechanics by Variation of pH and Ion Charges
The cytoskeleton is formed by three types of filamentous proteins - microtubules, actin filaments, and intermediate filaments (IFs) - and enables cells to withstand external and internal forces. Vimentin is the most abundant IF protein in humans and assembles into 10 nm diameter filaments with remarkable mechanical properties, such as high extensibility and stability. It is, however, unclear to which extent these properties are influenced by the electrostatic environment. Here, we study the mechanical properties of single vimentin filaments by employing optical trapping combined with microfluidics. Force-strain curves, recorded at varying ion concentrations and pH values, reveal that the mechanical properties of single vimentin IFs are influenced by pH and ion concentration. By combination with Monte Carlo simulations, we relate these altered mechanics to electrostatic interactions of subunits within the filaments. We thus suggest possible mechanisms that allow cells to locally tune their stiffness without remodeling the entire cytoskeleton.