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Microfilaments – Definition, Structure, Function

What is Microfilaments?

  • Microfilaments, also known as actin filaments, are fundamental components of a cell’s cytoskeleton, responsible for maintaining its structural integrity and facilitating various cellular processes. Composed of polymers of the protein actin, these filaments consist of long chains of G-actin molecules organized into two parallel strands that twist around each other in a helical pattern, giving them a diameter ranging from 6 to 8 nanometers.
  • In every eukaryotic cell, microfilaments play a crucial role in providing structural support and participating in a wide range of cellular functions. Together with microtubules and intermediate filaments, they form the cytoskeleton, which acts as a dynamic scaffolding system within the cell.
  • One of the primary functions of microfilaments is to facilitate cytokinesis, the process by which a cell divides into two daughter cells. During this stage, microfilaments constrict the cell’s membrane, ultimately separating the two newly formed daughter cells.
  • Microfilaments are also vital for cell motility, allowing cells to move and change their shape. They play a significant role in amoeboid movement, a type of cellular locomotion seen in certain cells, such as white blood cells. By assembling and disassembling in a highly coordinated manner, microfilaments enable the cell to extend pseudopods, projections that allow the cell to move and engulf particles.
  • Moreover, these filaments are involved in processes like endocytosis and exocytosis, which are responsible for transporting molecules into and out of the cell. During endocytosis, microfilaments help the cell invaginate its membrane to form vesicles, while during exocytosis, they assist in fusing vesicles with the cell membrane to release their contents outside the cell.
  • Cell contractility is yet another critical function of microfilaments. By interacting with myosin proteins, these filaments enable muscle cells to contract, leading to movement in multicellular organisms. In non-muscle cells, microfilaments also contribute to contractile activities, such as maintaining cell shape and generating tension for cell movement.
  • Lastly, microfilaments provide mechanical stability to the cell by forming a network that helps withstand external forces and maintain the cell’s shape and integrity.
  • In conclusion, microfilaments, or actin filaments, are essential components of a cell’s cytoskeleton, involved in various vital cellular functions. Their versatility in contributing to cytokinesis, cell motility, shape changes, endocytosis, exocytosis, contractility, and mechanical stability makes them indispensable for maintaining cellular homeostasis and supporting the cell’s overall functionality.

Definition of Microfilaments

Microfilaments, or actin filaments, are slender protein fibers that form a vital part of a cell’s cytoskeleton, contributing to cell shape, movement, and structural support.

Distribution of Microfilaments

  • The distribution of microfilaments within cells showcases their unique localization and crucial involvement in various cellular processes. Unlike microtubules and intermediate filaments, which are predominantly situated in the subcortical and deeper regions of the cell, microfilaments tend to concentrate in the sub-plasma membrane cytoplasmic granules of most cells.
  • Microfilaments play a significant role in dynamic cellular areas, and as a result, they are widely present throughout cellular processes. Notably, these thin filaments can be found in specific cellular structures, such as the microvilli of the brush border in intestinal epithelium. The presence of microfilaments in microvilli is essential for their functionality in increasing the cell’s surface area for nutrient absorption and other processes.
  • Furthermore, microfilaments are also abundant in cell types characterized by amoeboid movement and cytoplasmic streaming. Amoeboid movement involves the extension of pseudopods, allowing cells to move and change shape. Microfilaments, with their ability to assemble and disassemble rapidly, are essential for orchestrating this cellular locomotion. Similarly, during cytoplasmic streaming, microfilaments enable the movement of cytoplasm within cells, facilitating the transport of organelles and other essential materials.
  • The widespread distribution of microfilaments in various dynamic cellular regions underscores their importance in maintaining cell structure, facilitating movement, and supporting cellular functions. Their unique localization in sub-plasma membrane cytoplasmic granules distinguishes them from microtubules and intermediate filaments, emphasizing the diverse roles of different components of the cytoskeleton in cellular organization and activity.

Chemical Composition of Microfilaments (Structure of Microfilaments)

  • The chemical composition and structure of microfilaments are fundamental to their role in maintaining cell structure and enabling various cellular processes. Microfilaments are primarily composed of polymers of actin, a protein that interacts with several other proteins within the cell.
  • Initially, actin is synthesized in a globular form called globular actin (G-actin). However, when it comes together to form microfilaments, these molecules polymerize into long chains that intertwine in a helical arrangement, creating a filamentous form known as filamentous actin (F-actin). Each microfilament consists of two strands of actin subunits wound in a spiral configuration.
  • The subunits that come together to form a microfilament are referred to as globular actin (G-actin) monomers. Once these G-actin monomers bind and polymerize, they form the filamentous actin (F-actin) structure, giving microfilaments their characteristic appearance.
  • Microfilaments are remarkably slender, with an average diameter of about 7 nanometers, making them the thinnest filaments of the cytoskeleton. Despite their slim structure, these linear filaments are flexible and robust, effectively resisting crushing and buckling while providing crucial support to the cell.
  • Similar to microtubules, microfilaments exhibit polarity. The plus end, which is positively charged, is termed the “barbed end,” while the minus end, which is negatively charged, is known as the “pointed end.” This polarization is a result of the molecular binding pattern of the actin subunits in the microfilament. Additionally, like microtubules, the plus end of microfilaments grows faster than the minus end.
  • The tough and flexible framework of microfilaments is instrumental in facilitating cellular movement. They are typically nucleated at the plasma membrane, and as a result, the cell’s periphery or edges generally contain the highest concentration of microfilaments. This localization makes them integral to the regulation of the cell’s shape and surface movements, and they are considered part of the cell cortex when found directly beneath the plasma membrane.
  • The formation or self-assembly of microfilaments begins when three G-actin proteins come together to form a trimer. Additional actin molecules then bind to the barbed end, leading to the polymerization of the long strands that constitute microfilaments. Autoclampin proteins act as motors, aiding in the self-assembly process.
  • Moreover, microfilaments are highly dynamic structures influenced by various external factors and a group of specialized proteins. This dynamic nature allows them to undergo rapid changes, even disassembling in one region of the cell and reassembling elsewhere as needed to adapt to cellular requirements.
  • In conclusion, microfilaments, primarily composed of actin polymers, exhibit a unique helical structure and possess remarkable flexibility and strength. Their polarity, dynamic characteristics, and localization at the cell’s periphery contribute to their essential role in maintaining cell shape, supporting cellular movements, and enabling various cellular processes.
Structure of Microfilaments
Structure of Microfilaments

Associated Proteins with Microfilaments

The proper formation and regulation of actin filaments, also known as microfilaments, depend on the presence and activities of associated proteins. These proteins play essential roles in various aspects of actin filament dynamics and organization within the cell. Some of the crucial associated proteins with microfilaments include:

  1. Actin Monomer-Binding Proteins:
    • Thymosin beta-4 and Profilin: These proteins bind to actin monomers, regulating their availability for polymerization into actin filaments. Thymosin beta-4 sequesters actin monomers, preventing their incorporation into filaments, while Profilin promotes actin polymerization by facilitating the addition of monomers to the growing filament.
  2. Filament Cross-Linkers:
    • Fascin, Fimbrin, and Alpha-Actinin: These proteins play roles in bundling and cross-linking actin filaments, providing structural stability to the cytoskeleton and facilitating the formation of various actin-based structures within the cell.
  3. Filament-Nucleator or Arp2/3 Complex:
    • The Arp2/3 complex is a critical nucleator that initiates the branching of actin filaments. It promotes the formation of new actin filaments at specific angles from pre-existing ones, generating branched actin networks essential for cellular motility and shape changes.
  4. Filament-Severing Proteins:
    • Gelsolin: This protein is responsible for severing actin filaments, leading to the generation of new filament ends. By regulating filament length, gelsolin plays a role in controlling actin filament turnover and dynamics.
  5. Filament-End Tracking Proteins:
    • Formins, N-WASP, and VASP: These proteins bind to actin filament ends and regulate the addition of actin monomers to these ends, thereby influencing filament elongation. They are involved in the assembly and organization of actin filaments in various cellular structures.
  6. Filament Barbed-End Cappers:
    • CapG: CapG is a protein that binds to the “barbed” or plus ends of actin filaments, capping and stabilizing these ends. This prevents further addition or loss of actin monomers at the barbed end, controlling filament growth and dynamics.
  7. Actin Depolymerizing Proteins:
    • ADF/Cofilin: These proteins promote the disassembly of actin filaments by severing filaments and enhancing actin depolymerization. They contribute to the turnover and remodeling of the actin cytoskeleton, which is crucial for cell motility and shape changes.

Together, these associated proteins with microfilaments tightly regulate actin filament assembly, stability, branching, and turnover, enabling the dynamic remodeling of the cytoskeleton in response to various cellular signals and functions. The precise orchestration of these proteins ensures the proper functioning of actin-based cellular processes, including cell motility, cytokinesis, endocytosis, and cell shape changes.

Function of Microfilaments

Microfilaments, also known as actin filaments, perform essential functions within eukaryotic cells, contributing to their survival, movement, and structural integrity.

  1. Cellular Contraction and Movement: Microfilaments, in association with the motor protein myosin, generate the forces necessary for cellular contraction and basic cell movements. This interplay between microfilaments and myosin enables cells to contract and move, facilitating processes such as muscle contraction, cell migration, and cellular locomotion.
  2. Cellular Integrity and Adaptation: The integrity of actin filaments is crucial for eukaryotic cells to withstand various stresses within their environment. They provide mechanical support and stability to the cell, helping it maintain its shape and resist external forces.
  3. Cell Surface Projections: Microfilaments play a key role in the development of cell surface projections like filopodia, lamellipodia, and stereocilia. Filopodia are thin, finger-like projections that aid in cell movement and sensing the environment, while lamellipodia are broad, sheet-like structures involved in cell migration. Stereocilia are specialized microvilli found in sensory cells of the inner ear. Microfilaments are vital for the formation and maintenance of these projections, enabling specific cellular functions.
  4. Amoeboid Movements: Microfilaments are critical for amoeboid movements observed in certain cell types, such as white blood cells. These movements involve the extension and retraction of pseudopods, allowing the cell to change its shape and move in a flexible manner.
  5. Cell Division (Cytokinesis): During cell division (mitosis), microfilaments play a crucial role in the process of cytokinesis. They aid in “pinching off” the dividing cell, physically separating it into two daughter cells.
  6. Cytoskeleton Organization: As part of the cytoskeleton, microfilaments keep organelles in place within the cell. They provide structural support, giving the cell its rigidity and maintaining its shape.
  7. Dynamic Shape Changes: Microfilaments can rapidly depolymerize (disassemble) and reform, allowing cells to change their shape and move. This dynamic property is crucial for various cellular processes, including cell migration and the rapid adaptation of cell shape in response to stimuli.

In conclusion, microfilaments play diverse and vital roles in eukaryotic cells. From generating cellular forces for movement and contraction to maintaining cellular integrity, facilitating cell division, and supporting organelles, these dynamic structures are indispensable for cellular survival, function, and adaptation. Their ability to depolymerize and reform rapidly further enables cells to change shape and respond effectively to their ever-changing environment.

Important Note

  • One important note about microfilaments is their fundamental role as a structural component of the cytoskeleton in all eukaryotic cells, along with microtubules and intermediate filaments. Microfilaments, composed of actin proteins, have a diameter ranging from 5 to 9 nanometers and are designed to endure high levels of stress.
  • These dynamic filaments, in conjunction with myosin, play a crucial role in generating forces essential for cellular contraction and fundamental cell movement. They are particularly important in facilitating amoeboid movement in certain cell types and contribute significantly to the process of cell division.
  • The unique structure of microfilaments, formed by intertwining long polymerized chains of actin molecules in a helix, gives rise to polarity within each filament. Each microfilament has two distinct ends, with the positive end growing and disassembling faster than the minus end.
  • Unlike microtubules that extend from the centrosome, microfilaments are typically nucleated at the plasma membrane, leading to their higher concentration around the cell’s periphery or edges, known as the cell cortex. This localization allows microfilaments to regulate the cell’s shape and movement on its surface.
  • Microfilaments exhibit a remarkable ability to undergo quick alterations due to external stimuli and specialized proteins, allowing them to be disassembled in one region of the cell and reassembled in another as needed.
  • The organization of microfilaments into larger and more robust structures in live animal cells is facilitated by various auxiliary proteins. The specific arrangement of microfilaments depends on their primary function and the proteins that link them together. For instance, fimbrin organizes microfilaments into parallel bundles in surface protrusions called microspikes, while alpha-actinin and fibroblast stress fibres result in less densely packed filament bundles.
  • Despite their evolutionary conservation, actin and microfilaments remain targets for potential threats to cells. Some plants, unable to physically evade predators, have developed toxins that alter cellular actin and microfilaments as a defense mechanism. For instance, the death cap mushroom releases phalloidin, which binds to and stabilizes actin filaments, leading to cell damage and potentially lethal consequences.
  • In summary, microfilaments are integral to various cellular functions, and their unique structure and dynamic properties allow cells to adapt to changing environments and maintain structural integrity. Understanding the intricate regulation and organization of microfilaments is crucial for comprehending cell behavior, motility, and division, as well as for potential applications in medicine and biotechnology.


What are microfilaments?

Microfilaments, also known as actin filaments, are thin, rod-like structures made of the protein actin. They are a major component of the cytoskeleton, which helps maintain cell shape and allows cells to move.

What is the function of microfilaments?

Microfilaments have several functions, including providing structural support to cells, aiding in cell division and movement, and participating in cellular processes such as endocytosis and exocytosis.

What is the structure of microfilaments?

Microfilaments are made up of individual actin monomers that polymerize to form long, thin filaments. These filaments can then further associate with other proteins to form complex networks within cells.

How are microfilaments different from microtubules?

Microfilaments and microtubules are both components of the cytoskeleton, but they have different structures and functions. Microfilaments are thinner and more flexible than microtubules, and they are primarily involved in cell movement and contraction, whereas microtubules are involved in cell division and intracellular transport.

What is the role of myosin in microfilament function?

Myosin is a motor protein that interacts with microfilaments to produce movement. It can bind to actin filaments and move along them, using ATP as a source of energy. This allows myosin to generate contractile forces in cells, such as in muscle cells.

How do microfilaments contribute to cell division?

During cell division, microfilaments form a contractile ring around the cell, which helps to pinch the cell membrane inward and divide the cell in two. This process is known as cytokinesis.

What happens to microfilaments during muscle contraction?

Muscle contraction is driven by the interaction between myosin and actin filaments within muscle cells. When these filaments slide past each other, they shorten the muscle fiber and produce force.

What is the role of microfilaments in cell migration?

Microfilaments help cells move by forming structures called lamellipodia and filopodia, which extend out from the cell and attach to the surrounding environment. These structures can then pull the cell forward, allowing it to move in a particular direction.

What is the effect of drugs that disrupt microfilaments?

Drugs that disrupt microfilaments, such as cytochalasin and latrunculin, can have various effects on cells depending on the dose and duration of treatment. In general, these drugs can interfere with cell shape and movement, as well as cellular processes that rely on microfilaments.

How are microfilaments involved in the formation of cell junctions?

Microfilaments contribute to the formation and maintenance of several types of cell junctions, including adherens junctions and tight junctions. These junctions help to hold cells together and regulate the movement of molecules and cells between different tissue compartments.


  • Crawford, J. M., Bioulac-Sage, P., & Hytiroglou, P. (2018). Structure, Function, and Responses to Injury. Macsween’s Pathology of the Liver, 1–87. doi:10.1016/b978-0-7020-6697-9.00001-7 
  • Slack, J. M. W. (2014). Molecular Biology of the Cell. Principles of Tissue Engineering, 127–145. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-398358-9.00007-0 

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