Obliquely striated muscle fibres from the longitudinal and circular layers of the body wall of the earthworm were prepared in extended and contracted states for study in the electron microscope.
Contracted fibres differ from extended ones in the following respects: (i) the I-bands are narrower, (ii) the A-bands are wider, and (iii) there are more rows of thick myofilaments in each A-band.
The arrangement of the thick and thin myofilaments in interdigitating arrays and the occurrence of cross-links between the 2 types of myofilament indicate a classical sliding-filament mechanism of contraction as in cross-striated muscle, resulting in a reduction in the I-band width.
The increase in the A-band width could be due to a moving apart of the myofilaments during contraction to preserve constant volume of the lattice.
The third change, the increase in the number of rows of thick myofilaments in the A-band, can be explained only by a shearing of these filaments past one another in such a way as to increase the amount of their overlap.
The role of the sliding-filament and shearing contraction mechanisms in bringing about the changes observed in earthworm muscle fibres is considered and the possible correlation of these mechanisms with certain physiological data is discussed. The function of the sarcoplasmic reticulum in the transmission of impulses to the interior of the fibre and/or in the control of the contraction mechanism is also discussed.