Myofilament extensibility is a key structural parameter for interpreting myosin cross-bridge kinetics in striated muscle. Previous studies reported much higher thick-filament extensibility at low tension than the better-known and commonly used values at high tension, but in interpreting mechanical studies of muscle, a single value for thick-filament extensibility has usually been assumed. Here, we established the complete thick-filament force-extension curve from actively contracting, intact vertebrate skeletal muscle. To access a wide range of tetanic forces, the myosin inhibitor blebbistatin was used to induce low tetanic forces in addition to the higher tensions obtained from tetanic contractions of the untreated muscle. We show that the force/extensibility curve of the thick filament is nonlinear, so assuming a single value for thick-filament extensibility at all force levels is not justified. We also show that independent of whether tension is generated passively by sarcomere stretch or actively by cross-bridges, the thick-filament extensibility is nonlinear. Myosin head periodicity, however, only changes when active tension is generated under calcium-activated conditions. The nonlinear thick-filament force-extension curve in skeletal muscle, therefore, reflects a purely passive response to either titin-based force or actomyosin-based force, and it does not include a thick-filament activation mechanism. In contrast, the transition of myosin head periodicity to an active configuration appears to only occur in response to increased active force when calcium is present.
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