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Myofibrils (obsolete term: sarcostyles) are cylindrical organelles, found within muscle cells. They are bundles of filaments that run from one end of the cell to the other and are attached to the cell surface membrane at each end. The filaments of myofibrils, myofilaments , consist of 2 types, thick and thin. Thin filaments consist primarily of the protein, actin; thick filaments consist primarily of the protein, myosin. In striated muscle, such as skeletal and cardiac muscle, the actin and myosin filaments each have a specific and constant length on the order of a few micrometers, far less than the length of the elongated muscle cell (a few millimeters in the case of human skeletal muscle cells). The filaments are organized into repeated subunits along the length of the myofibril. These subunits are called sarcomeres. The muscle cell is nearly filled with myofibrils running parallel to each other on the long axis of the cell. The sarcomeric subunits of one myofibril are in nearly perfect alignment with those of the myofibrils next to it. This alignment gives rise to certain optical properties which cause the cell to appear striped or striated. In smooth muscle cells, this alignment is absent. Hence there are no apparent striations and the cells are called "smooth".
The photo below is a high power picture (electron micrograph) of a small region of a skeletal muscle cell. The long axis of the cell is indicated by the direction of the RED double arrow. That arrow begins and ends on the boundaries of a sarcomere. The GREEN arrows demarcate the width of 2 adjacent, parallel myofibrils. The LIGHT BLUE arrow, labeled TK, indicates the length of a portion of a sarcomere made up of thick filaments, which can be seen running in the long axis of the myofibril. The thin filaments extend from the dark boundary of a sarcomere into the region occupied by the thick filaments. They interdigitate with the thick filaments there. In this photo, thin filaments do not show up well. They are in the white or clear band between the sarcomere boundary and the region occupied by the thick filaments, but continue into the region where you can see the thick filaments.
The names of the various sub-regions of the sarcomere are based on their relatively lighter or darker appearance when viewed through the light microscope. Each sarcomere is delimited by two very dark colored bands called Z-discs or Z-lines (from the German "zwischen" meaning between). These Z-discs are dense protein discs that do not easily allow the passage of light. The area between the Z-discs is further divided into two lighter colored bands at either end called the I-bands, and a darker, grayish band in the middle called the A band.
The I bands appear lighter because these regions of the sarcomere mainly contain the thin actin filaments, whose smaller diameter allows the passage of light between them. The A band, on the other hand, contains mostly myosin filaments whose larger diameter restricts the passage of light. (Note for the insatiably curious: A stands for “anisotropic” and I for “isotropic”, referring to the optical properties of living muscle as demonstrated with polarized-light microscopy.)
The parts of the A band that abut the I bands are occupied by the both actin and myosin filaments (where they interdigitate as described above). Also within the A band is a relatively brighter central region called the H-zone (from the German “helle”, meaning bright)in which there is no actin/myosin overlap when the muscle is in a relaxed state. Finally, the A band is bisected by a dark central line called the M-line (from the German "mittel" meaning middle).
When a muscle contracts, the actin is pulled along myosin toward the center of the sarcomere until the actin and myosin filaments are completely overlapped. The H zone becomes smaller and smaller due to the increasing overlap of actin and myosin filaments, and the muscle shortens. Thus when the muscle is fully contracted, the H zone is no longer visible (as in the photo above). Note that the actin and myosin filaments themselves do not change length, but merely slide past each other. This is known as the Sliding Filament Theory of muscle contraction.
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