How Muscles Work

Contracting a Muscle

During contraction, the thin filaments slide past the thick filaments, shortening the sarcomere.

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The thick and thin filaments do the actual work of a muscle, and the way they do this is pretty cool. Thick filaments are made of a protein called myosin. At the molecular level, a thick filament is a shaft of myosin molecules arranged in a cylinder. Thin filaments are made of another protein called actin. The thin filaments look like two strands of pearls twisted around each other.

During contraction, the myosin thick filaments grab on to the actin thin filaments by forming crossbridges. The thick filaments pull the thin filaments past them, making the sarcomere shorter. In a muscle fiber, the signal for contraction is synchronized over the entire fiber so that all of the myofibrils that make up the sarcomere shorten simultaneously.

There are two structures in the grooves of each thin filament that enable the thin filaments to slide along the thick ones: a long, rod-like protein called tropomyosin and a shorter, bead-like protein complex called troponin. Troponin and tropomyosin are the molecular switches that control the interaction of actin and myosin during contraction.

While the sliding of filaments explains how the muscle shortens, it does not explain how the muscle creates the force required for shortening. To understand how this force is created, let's think about how you pull something up with a rope:

  1. Grab the rope with both hands, arms extended.
  2. Loosen your grip with one hand, let's say the left hand, and maintain your grip with the right.
  3. With your right hand holding the rope, change your right arm's shape to shorten its reach and pull the rope toward you.
  4. Grab the rope with your extended left hand and release your right hand's grip.
  5. Change your left arm's shape to shorten it and pull the rope, returning your right arm to its original extended position so it can grab the rope.
  6. Repeat steps 2 through 5, alternating arms, until you finish.

Muscles create force by cycling myosin crossbridges.

To understand how muscle creates force, let's apply the rope example.

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Myosin molecules are golf-club shaped. For our example, the myosin clubhead (along with the crossbridge it forms) is your arm, and the actin filament is the rope:

  1. During contraction, the myosin molecule forms a chemical bond with an actin molecule on the thin filament (gripping the rope). This chemical bond is the crossbridge. For clarity, only one cross-bridge is shown in the figure above (focusing on one arm).
  2. Initially, the crossbridge is extended (your arm extending) with adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and inorganic phosphate (Pi) attached to the myosin.
  3. As soon as the crossbridge is formed, the myosin head bends (your arm shortening), thereby creating force and sliding the actin filament past the myosin (pulling the rope). This process is called the power stroke. During the power stroke, myosin releases the ADP and Pi.
  4. Once ADP and Pi are released, a molecule of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) binds to the myosin. When the ATP binds, the myosin releases the actin molecule (letting go of the rope).
  5. When the actin is released, the ATP molecule gets split into ADP and Pi by the myosin. The energy from the ATP resets the myosin head to its original position (re-extending your arm).
  6. The process is repeated. The actions of the myosin molecules are not synchronized -- at any given moment, some myosins are attaching to the actin filament (gripping the rope), others are creating force (pulling the rope) and others are releasing the actin filament (releasing the rope).

The contractions of all muscles are triggered by electrical impulses, whether transmitted by nerve cells, created internally (as with a pacemaker) or applied externally (as with an electrical-shock stimulus).