Muscles: Structure & Function
I. Muscle Structure
Muscles are comprised of bundles (fascicles) of muscle fibers (actually cells). The muscle fibers
are surrounded by connective tissue.
A. Muscle Fiber (cells)
- long (can run entire length of muscle)
- sarcolemma (=plasma membrane), sarcoplasmic reticulum (=endoplasmic reticulum),
sarcoplasm (= cytoplasm)
- T-tubules inward extensions of the sarcolemma
- contains bundles of myofibrils
- organization summary: muscle (tissue)
- threads that run through the muscle fibers
- made of actin and myosin myofilaments (or just filaments)
- myosin filaments thick; myosin (contractile protein); head and tail region;
look like golf clubs
- actin filaments thin; actin (contractile protein; globular units,
called G-actin, linked together to form a chain, called F actin; two
chains intertwined); associated with regulatory proteins (tropomyosin, troponin complex)
attached at intervals
- actin and myosin filaments overlap to form a sarcomere
- numerous sarcomeres are joined end-to-end to form a myofibril
- contractile units
- thick myosin filaments in middle region
- thin actin filaments toward outside
- distinctive striated structure of sarcomere due to overlapping of the thin (actin) and
thick (myosin) filaments and attachment of adjacent sarcomeres. The following regions of
the sarcomere can be seen (check diagram in text):
- Z-line (region where adjacent sarcomeres are attached through
by joining their thin filaments);
- I band (lighter area with only thin filaments)
- H zone
(central zone with only thick filaments)
- M line - dark area in the H zone, region where myosin tails are
- A band (regions where thick and thin filaments overlap)
II. Muscle Contraction
Muscles contract as the actin and myosin filaments slide past one
another. Note that the filaments do not decrease in length. Sliding requires energy that
is supplied by ATP. The myosin head of the thick filaments is the "business" end
of the process and contracts moving (like a ratchet) the thin filaments toward the middle
of the sarcomere. This is called the "Sliding Filament Model".
Let's see how
- ATP binds to the myosin head at a specific binding site
- Myosin hydrolyzes the ATP into ADP & Pi. (note that the myosin is
Some of the energy is used to change the position of the myosin from a "bent"
low-energy state, to an "open" high-energy state; releases myosin
from the actin filament
- Energized myosin binds to an
available site on the actin filament
- ADP & Pi are released from the myosin head and this causes the head to "spring
back" to its original bent configuration moving the actin filament toward the
III. Muscle Relaxation
The muscle fibers return to their original position -
pulled back by the 'elasticity' of the muscle. As the muscle contracts it
acts a little like stretching a rubber band ultimately pulling the muscle back.
Skeletal muscles only contract when stimulated by a motor neuron.
Muscle fibers don't normally contract because the myosin binding sites are normally blocked by regulatory proteins
(troponin/tropomyosin complex). For contraction to occur, the
complex must be moved out of the way. How does this work?
- Motor neurons extend to each skeletal muscle
One motor neuron may activate from a dozen to many muscle fibers
The motor neuron doesn't attach directly to the fiber, but
ends in a synapse
- The electrical signal from the neuron reaches the end of the neuron (axon) stimulating
the release of a chemical neurotransmitter - acetylcholine
- Acetylcholine diffuses across the synapse and activates chemical-gated
channels in the post-synaptic membrane in the sarcolemma of
the muscle fiber
- Ions (sodium) enters the muscle fibers which causes a depolarization of the membrane (switches polarity).
- The wave of depolarization sweeps down the muscle fiber (= action potential)
- The action potential spreads through the T (transverse) tubules (I'll
bet you were
wondering what those were for!) and into the sarcoplasmic reticulum.
- In response, the SR releases calcium ions into the myofilaments
- Calcium binds to the troponin complex which alters the shape of the tropomyosin/troponin
complex causing them to pull away from the binding sites on the actin thin filaments
- The exposed active sites can now bind with the myosin for contraction
- Calcium pumps, via active transport, continually move calcium from the
sarcoplasm back into the SR.
V. Energy Source for Contraction
- ATP this is the readily available energy source. It's like the money in your
pocket. Like your cash, the ATP goes fast and there is usually only enough for a few
contractions. ATP is generated by the mitochondria hence lots of big ones in muscle
fibers. This is also why lots of oxygen is required for muscles. No
ATP = rigor mortis.
- Creatine phosphate a backup energy source that provides phosphate for ATP.
Like ATP it is also quickly used up. Perhaps analogous to a traveler's check
that you can easily convert to cash.
- Glycogen a polymer of glucose; a storage form of energy. This is like having
money in the bank. You can access these funds with a credit card or
check. It is used for repetitive contractions and can be
VI. Graded Contraction
Here's a paradox we know that we can voluntarily alter the
extent and strength of a contraction (a graded response), BUT at the cellular level the
response is all-or-nothing. How are graded contractions generated? It is controlled by the
nervous system that:
- can vary the number of action potentials in the motor neurons. A single action potential
causes a single "muscle twitch". If a second action potential arrives before the
first one ends, then the responses add up further stimulating the muscle. If enough action
potentials are received the muscle shows one smooth sustained contraction (tetanus
not the same as disease).
- can vary the number of muscle fibers that are activated
VII. Cell Type - a refresher
Muscle cells: (a) are elongated; (b) excitable; and (c) can
contract. Recall that there are three major types of muscle cells/tissue:
Responsible for voluntary movements. These cells are long
and cylindrical, and when bundled together form fibers, which in turn are
sheathed into a muscle. Skeletal muscle is striated and multi-nucleated.
Activated by motor neurons.
Involved in involuntary movements. These cells are
tapered (spindle shaped) and are important in blood vessels, stomach,
bladder, and internal organs. Smooth muscle is not striated because actin
and myosin are not regularly arranged as in skeletal muscle. There is
only a single nucleus. The cells occur in sheets; electrical synapses (gap
Involuntary contractions. Found in the wall of the heart
(where else?). Striated. The cells are branched (withstand
pressure and resist tearing) and are fused (intercalated disks) for intimate
contact. Electrical synapses. Single nucleus.
VII. Cool Stuff
- Slow twitch fibers longer sustained responses;
endurance athletes; most of the ATP generated by aerobic respiration -
evidence: have lots of mitochondria; enriched with myoglobin (pigment like
hemoglobin), makes the slow-twitch fibers reddish in color. The
myoglobin provides additional oxygen for aerobic respiration; Myoglobin type
- Fast twitch fibers - short
rapid bursts of activity; sprinters; fewer mitochondria, ATP can be
generated by anaerobic metabolism (e.g., fermentation); little myoglobin,
whitish in color.
- Muscles can only contract - thus, to move back and forth requires two muscles acting oppositely of one another. For
example, when the biceps contracts the arm bends; when the triceps contracts, the arm
Last updated: April 06, 2008
� Copyright by SG Saupe