A vimentin monomer, like all other intermediate filaments, has a central α-helical domain, capped on each end by non-helical amino (head) and carboxyl (tail) domains. Two monomers are likely co-translationally expressed in a way that facilitates their formation of a coiled-coil dimer, which is the basic subunit of vimentin assembly.
The α-helical sequences contain a pattern of hydrophobic amino acids that contribute to forming a "hydrophobic seal" on the surface of the helix. In addition, there is a periodic distribution of acidic and basic amino acids that seems to play an important role in stabilizing coiled-coil dimers. The spacing of the charged residues is optimal for ionic salt bridges, which allows for the stabilization of the α-helix structure. While this type of stabilization is intuitive for intrachain interactions, rather than interchain interactions, scientists have proposed that perhaps the switch from intrachain salt bridges formed by acidic and basic residues to the interchain ionic associations contributes to the assembly of the filament.
The dynamic nature of vimentin is important when offering flexibility to the cell. Scientists found that vimentin provided cells with a resilience absent from the microtubule or actin filament networks, when under mechanical stress in vivo. Therefore, in general, it is accepted that vimentin is the cytoskeletal component responsible for maintaining cell integrity. (It was found that cells without vimentin are extremely delicate when disturbed with a micropuncture).Transgenic mice that lacked vimentin are functionally normal. It is possible that the microtubule network may have compensated for the absence of the intermediate network. This result supports an intimate interactions between microtubules and vimentin. Moreover, when microtubule depolymerizers were present, vimentin reorganization occurred, once again implying a relationship between the two systems.
In essence, vimentin is responsible for maintaining cell shape, integrity of the cytoplasm, and stabilizing cytoskeletal interactions.
Also, vimentin is found to control the transport of low-density lipoprotein, LDL, -derived cholesterol from a lysosome to the site of esterification. With the blocking of transport of LDL-derived cholesterol inside the cell, cells were found to store a much lower percentage of the lipoprotein than normal cells with vimentin. This dependence seems to be the first process of a biochemical function in any cell that depends on a cellular intermediate filament network. This type of dependence has ramifications on the adrenal cells, which rely on cholesteryl esters derived from LDL.
Vimentin methylation has been established as a biomarker of colon cancer—this marker is being utilized in the development of fecal tests for colon cancer. Statistically significant levels of vimentin methylation have also been observed in certain upper gastrointestinal pathologies such as Barrett's esophagus, esophageal adenocarcinoma, and intestinal type gastric cancer. High levels of DNA methylation in the promotor region have also been associated with markedly decreased survival in hormone positive breast cancers.
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