From ultra-soft slime to hard alpha-keratins: the many lives of intermediate filaments
by Fudge, D.S., Winegard, T., Ewoldt, R.H., Beriault, D., Szewciw, L. and McKinley, G.H.
Intermediate filaments are filaments 10nm in diameter that make up an important component of the cytoskeleton in most metazoan taxa. They are most familiar for their role as the fibrous component of alpha-keratins such as skin, hair, nail, and horn but are also abundant within living cells. Although they are almost exclusively intracellular in their distribution, in the case of the defensive slime produced by hagfishes, they are secreted. This article surveys the impressive diversity of biomaterials that animals construct from intermediate filaments and will focus on the mechanisms by which the mechanical properties of these materials are achieved. Hagfish slime is a dilute network of hydrated mucus and compliant intermediate filament bundles with ultrasoft material properties. Within the cytoplasm of living cells, networks of intermediate filaments form soft gels whose elasticity arises via entropic mechanisms. Single intermediate filaments or bundles are also elastic, but substantially stiffer, exhibiting modulus values similar to that of rubber. Hard alpha-keratins like wool are stiffer still, an effect that is likely achieved via dehydration of the intermediate filaments in these epidermal appendages. The diverse mechanisms described here have been employed by animals to generate materials with stiffness values that span an impressive eleven orders of magnitude.