Actin polymerization is harnessed by cells to generate lamellipodia for movement and by a subclass of pathogens to facilitate invasion of their infected hosts. Using electron tomography (ET), we have shown that lamellipodia are formed via the generation of subsets of actin filaments joined by branch junctions. Image averaging produced a 2.9 nm resolution model of branch junctions in situ and revealed a close fit to the electron density map of the actin-related protein 2/3 (Arp2/3)–actin complex in vitro. Correlated live-cell imaging and ET was also used to determine how actin networks are created and remodelled during the initiation and inhibition of protrusion in lamellipodia. Listeria, Rickettsia and viruses, such as vaccinia virus and baculovirus, exploit the actin machinery of host cells to generate propulsive actin comet tails to disseminate their infection. By applying ET, we have shown that baculovirus generates at its rear a fishbone-like array of subsets of branched actin filaments, with an average of only four filaments engaged in pushing at any one time. In both of these studies, the application of ET of negatively stained cytoskeletons for higher filament resolution and cryo-ET for preserving overall 3D morphology was crucial for obtaining a complete structure–function analysis of actin-driven propulsion.

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