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In this lesson, we’ll learn about the cytoskeleton of your cells. This network of microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments helps different types of cells maintain a unique set of characteristics, including shape and movement.

The Cytoskeleton

Together with your muscles, your nerves, and your skin, your skeleton gives your body that characteristic human shape.

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It allows you to stand on two feet, to leap, and to play a round of flag football. Did you know that all of the cells in your body also have a skeleton all their own? Many different types of cells have a complex called the cytoskeleton, or network of thin fibers, that can help these cells do a range of activities. Maybe a cell can’t pass around a pigskin, but it can do some equally cell-like, impressive things with the help of its very own skeleton.

A cytoskeleton can provide support and shape for a cell like your skeleton supports and shapes your body. Your skeleton helps you stand, and it also helps you run. In a cell, a cytoskeleton can also anchor a cell in one place or allow a cell to move. The bones in your arm help you catch a football independent from what’s going on in your legs.

The parts of your cells’ cytoskeletons can also help structures move independently within your cells. A cytoskeleton can position cell structures in specific places within the cell, or it can move cell structures from one end of the cell to the other.A cell’s cytoskeleton is comprised of three different types of fibers: microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments.


Microtubules are the largest fibers of the cytoskeleton, with a 25-nanometer diameter. They are composed of two different proteins called alpha and beta tubulin. One dimer of tubulin contains one alpha subunit and one beta subunit.

A microtubule is made up of many, many tubulin dimers. These dimers form long chains of alpha and beta tubulin. Thirteen chains of tubulin dimers make up one microtubule. The chains form a hollow tube, which is where microtubules get their name.

They look like a paper towel roll. Each end of a microtubule is referred to as the plus end or the minus end, and each microtubule is dynamic, meaning it can grow and it can shrink by adding or subtracting dimers, usually to the plus end.

Thirteen chains of dimers make up a microtubule

Microtubules function to support the cell shape, but they also help cell division.

Microtubules can be used like train tracks in the cell along which vesicles and structures can be transported by riding across them. A fourth important function of microtubules is in cell movement. Some cells have flagella and cilia made of microtubules. Flagella are long, snake-like whips that drive cell movement. Sperm cells are an example of cells that have flagella, which allows them to swim. Cilia are multiple short, hair-like structures that beat to move liquid around a cell.

Cilia are found in the cells that line your respiratory track, where they rhythmically beat to help you move mucous when you’re sick. Both flagella and cilia are made with microtubule structures surrounded by a plasma membrane. If you looked at a cross section of flagella or cilia, you would see what’s referred to as a ‘9 plus 2’ arrangement of microtubules. This is nine pairs of microtubules in a circle with two single microtubules in the center.

Intermediate Filaments

The next components of a cytoskeleton are the intermediate filaments. These fibers are called intermediate because they are the mid-sized fibers of the cytoskeleton, measuring 8-12 nanometers in diameter.

They can be made from any of several fibrous proteins twisted together like twine to make a rope.

Intermediate filaments make up the nuclear lamina
Nuclear Lamina

Intermediate filaments have a diverse role in structure and support within the cell. One specialized group of intermediate filaments has an important role in the nucleus, where they can make up the nuclear lamina. Remember that here they are essentially the cytoskeleton of the nucleus, specifically supporting a structure of your cells like the bones supporting your hands. Here, intermediate filaments provide support to the nuclear lamina and aid in regulating nuclear processes. They also extend from the nuclear envelope, helping the nucleus keep its position within the cell.


Microfilaments are the thinnest fibers of the cytoskeleton. They are 7 nanometers in diameter. These fibers are composed of actin protein. Monomers of actin combine to form long double helical chains. Microfilaments share a lot of similarities with microtubule function.

They are also dynamic, and they can grow and shrink by adding and subtracting actin subunits. In addition, they also have a plus end and a minus end.

Microfilaments have a plus and a minus end

Microfilaments function to keep cell shape. They also play a crucial role in muscle cell contraction, essential to the ability of your skeleton and muscle systems to work together and throw and catch a football.

Perhaps you could blame that bad throw on your microfilaments! Like microtubules, microfilaments can cause cell movement. However, they do this differently than microtubules. Microfilaments in amoeba, for example, form temporary extensions of the cell membrane that allow cells to push out projections and ‘walk’ across a surface, one ‘foot’ right in front of the other!

Lesson Summary

In summary, we’ve learned that the cytoskeleton of your cells is a network of microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments that perform a wide range of functions. Microtubules are the thickest cytoskeleton filaments, hollow tubes formed from alpha and beta tubulin dimers.

Microtubules provide cell shape and structure, aid in transport within the cell, help in cell division, and drive cell movement by flagella or cilia. Intermediate filaments are the mid-sized cytoskeleton fibers comprised of proteins twisted into rope-like structures. These fibers are important in stabilizing not only whole cell structure but nuclear structure as well. Lastly, microfilaments are the thinnest fiber of the cytoskeleton, a double helical structure of actin subunits. Microfilaments are important to cellular shape, muscle contraction, and cell movement.

Learning Outcome

You will be able to describe the structure and function of microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments, which are all part of the cytoskeleton, by the end of this lesson.

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