The first three minutes: smooth muscle contraction, cytoskeletal events, and soft glasses

Smooth muscle exhibits biophysical characteristics and physiological behaviors that are not readily explained by present paradigms of cytoskeletal and cross-bridge mechanics. There is increasing evidence that contractile activation of the smooth muscle cell involves an array of cytoskeletal processes that extend beyond cross-bridge cycling and the sliding of thick and thin filaments. We review here the evidence suggesting that the biophysical and mechanical properties of the smooth muscle cell reflect the integrated interactions of an array of highly dynamic cytoskeletal processes that both react to and transform the dynamics of cross-bridge interactions over the course of the contraction cycle. The activation of the smooth muscle cell is proposed to trigger dynamic remodeling of the actin filament lattice within cellular microdomains in response to local mechanical and pharmacological events, enabling the cell to adapt to its external environment. As the contraction progresses, the cytoskeletal lattice stabilizes, solidifies, and forms a rigid structure well suited for transmission of tension generated by the interaction of myosin and actin. The integrated molecular transitions that occur within the contractile cycle are interpreted in the context of microscale agitation mechanisms and resulting remodeling events within the intracellular microenvironment. Such an interpretation suggests that the cytoskeleton may behave as a glassy substance whose mechanical function is governed by an effective temperature.

mechanical plasticity; latch state; actin cytoskeleton; mechanotransduction; glass hypothesis

Susan J. Gunst1 and Jeffrey J. Fredberg2
1Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202; and 2Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02067