Bioethics Blogs

A Look Inside a Beating Heart Cell

Caption: Microtubules (blue) in a beating heart muscle cell, or cardiomyocyte. Credit: Lab of Ben Prosser, Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

You might expect that scientists already know everything there is to know about how a healthy heart beats. But researchers have only recently had the tools to observe some of the dynamic inner workings of heart cells as they beat. Now an NIH-funded team has captured video to show that a component of a heart muscle cell called microtubules—long thought to be very rigid—serve an unexpected role as molecular shock absorbers.

As described for the first time recently in the journal Science, the microtubules buckle under the force of each contraction of the muscle cell before springing back to their original length and form. The team also details a biochemical process that allows a cell to fine-tune the level of resistance that the microtubules provide. The findings have important implications for understanding not only the mechanics of a healthy beating heart, but how the abnormal stiffening of heart cells might play a role in various forms of cardiac disease.

Caption: Microtubules contracting. Top, microtubules (blue) in a resting heart muscle cell; bottom, microtubules (blue) contracted in a  beating heart muscle cell.
Credit: Lab of Ben Prosser, Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

Microtubules are dynamic filaments that play an important role in the structural support and movement of cells along with shuttling their intracellular cargo. While some evidence had implicated increased numbers of microtubules in heart disease, their role in the contraction of heart muscles had been largely unexplored.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.