The mechanical roles of sarcomere-associated cytoskeletal lattices were investigated by studying the resting tension-sarcomere length curves of mechanically skinned rabbit psoas muscle fibers over a wide range of sarcomere strain. Correlative immunoelectron microscopy of the elastic titin filaments of the endosarcomeric lattice revealed biphasic extensibility behaviors and provided a structural interpretation of the multiphasic tension-length curves. We propose that the reversible change of contour length of the extensible segment of titin between the Z line and the end of thick filaments underlies the exponential rise of resting tension. At and beyond an elastic limit near 3.8 microns, a portion of the anchored titin segment that adheres to thick filaments is released from the distal ends of thick filament. This increase in extensible length of titin results in a net length increase in the unstrained extensible segment, thereby lowering the stiffness of the fiber, lengthening the slack sarcomere length, and shifting the yield point in postyield sarcomeres. Thus, the titin-myosin composite filament behaves as a dual-stage molecular spring, consisting of an elastic connector segment for normal response and a longer latent segment that is recruited at and beyond the elastic limit of the sarcomere. Exosarcomeric intermediate filaments contribute to resting tension only above 4.5 microns. We conclude that the interlinked endo- and exosarcomeric lattices are both viscoelastic force-bearing elements. These distinct cytoskeletal lattices appear to operate over two ranges of sarcomere strains and collectively enable myofibrils to respond viscoelastically over a broad range of sarcomere and fiber lengths.
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