Contractile proteins exist as a number of isoforms that show a developmental and tissue-specific pattern of expression. Using gene-specific cDNA probes, the expression of the sarcomeric myosin heavy chain (MHC) multi-gene family and of cardiac (foetal) alpha-actin was analysed in three different rat hindlimb muscles immobilised for 5 days in either the shortened or lengthened positions. For each of the MHC genes normally expressed in adult muscle (slow, IIA and IIB), the effect of disuse alone (immobilisation in the shortened position) upon expression was markedly different to that of passive stretch (immobilisation in the lengthened position) in each of the three muscles. However, the same adult sarcomeric myosin heavy chain gene can be affected in a different, or even opposite, manner by either disuse or passive stretch depending on the muscle in which it is being expressed. The fast IIB MHC gene, for example, exhibits a rapid induction in the slow postural soleus muscle, in response to disuse but no such induction occurs in the faster plantaris and gastrocnemius muscles. Furthermore, the induction of this gene in the soleus was prevented by passive stretch. The MHC gene, normally only expressed in embryonic skeletal muscle, showed a similar response in all three muscles and was reinduced in adult muscle in response to passive stretch but not by disuse alone. In contrast, the isoform of alpha-actin which is normally only present in significant quantities in embryonic skeletal muscle and which is reduced postnatally, is not reinduced by passive stretch but is reduced still further by immobilisation in the shortened position.

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