Keratin intermediate filaments (IFs) fulfill an important function of structural support in epithelial cells. The necessary mechanical attributes require that IFs be organized into a crosslinked network and accordingly, keratin IFs are typically organized into large bundles in surface epithelia. For IFs comprised of keratins 5 and 14 (K5, K14), found in basal keratinocytes of epidermis, bundling can be self-driven through interactions between K14's carboxy-terminal tail domain and two regions in the central α-helical rod domain of K5. Here, we exploit theoretical principles and computational modeling to investigate how such cis-acting determinants best promote IF crosslinking. We develop a simple model where keratin IFs are treated as rigid rods to apply Brownian dynamics simulation. Our findings suggest that long-range interactions between IFs are required to initiate the formation of bundlelike configurations, while tail domain-mediated binding events act to stabilize them. Our model explains the differences observed in the mechanical properties of wild-type versus disease-causing, defective IF networks. This effort extends the notion that the structural support function of keratin IFs necessitates a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic determinants, and makes specific predictions about the mechanisms involved in the formation of crosslinked keratin networks in vivo.
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