Remodelling the contractile apparatus within smooth muscle cells allows effective contractile activity over a wide range of cell lengths. Thick filaments may be redistributed via depolymerisation into inactive myosin monomers that have been detected in vitro, in which the long tail has a folded conformation. Using negative stain electron microscopy of individual folded myosin molecules from turkey gizzard smooth muscle, we show that they are more compact than previously described, with heads and the three segments of the folded tail closely packed. Heavy meromyosin (HMM), which lacks two-thirds of the tail, closely resembles the equivalent parts of whole myosin. Image processing reveals a characteristic head region morphology for both HMM and myosin, with features identifiable by comparison with less compact molecules. The two heads associate asymmetrically: the tip of one motor domain touches the base of the other, resembling the blocked and free heads of this HMM when it forms 2D crystals on lipid monolayers. The tail of HMM lies between the heads, contacting the blocked motor domain, unlike in the 2D crystal. The tail of whole myosin is bent sharply and consistently close to residues 1175 and 1535. The first bend position correlates with a skip in the coiled coil sequence, the second does not. Tail segments 2 and 3 associate only with the blocked head, such that the second bend is near the C-lobe of the blocked head regulatory light chain. Quantitative analysis of tail flexibility shows that the single coiled coil of HMM has an apparent Young's modulus of about 0.5 GPa. The folded tail of the whole myosin is less flexible, indicating interactions between the segments. The folded tail does not modify the compact head arrangement but stabilises it, indicating a structural mechanism for the very low ATPase activity of the folded molecule.
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