Actin is a globular, roughly 42-kDa protein found in all eukaryotic cells (except for nematode sperm) where it may be present at concentrations of over 100 μM. It is also one of the most highly-conserved proteins, differing by no more than 20% in species as diverse as algae and humans. It is the monomeric subunit of microfilaments, one of the three major components of the cytoskeleton, and of thin filaments, which are part of the contractile apparatus in muscle cells. Thus, actin participates in many important cellular functions, including muscle contraction, cell motility, cell division and cytokinesis, vesicle and organelle movement, cell signaling, and the establishment and maintenance of cell junctions and cell shape.
Although most yeasts have only a single actin gene, higher eukaryotes, in general, express several isoforms of actin encoded by a family of related genes. Mammals have at least six actin isoforms coded by separate genes, which are divided into three classes (alpha, beta and gamma) according to their isoelectric point. In general, alpha actins are found in muscle (α-skeletal, α-aortic smooth, α-cardiac, and γ2-enteric smooth), whereas beta and gamma isoforms are prominent in non-muscle cells (β- and γ1-cytoplasmic). Although the amino acid sequences and in vitro properties of the isoforms are highly similar, these isoforms cannot completely substitute for one another in vivo.
The typical actin gene has an approximately 100-nucleotide 5' UTR, a 1200-nucleotide translated region, and a 200-nucleotide 3' UTR. The majority of actin genes are interrupted by introns, with up to 6 introns in any of 19 well-characterised locations. The high conservation of the family makes actin the favoured model for studies comparing the introns-early and introns-late models of intron evolution.
All non-spherical prokaryotes appear to possess genes such as MreB, which encode homologues of actin; these genes are required for the cell's shape to be maintained. The plasmid-derived gene ParM encodes an actin-like protein whose polymerised form is dynamically unstable, and appears to partition the plasmid DNA into the daughter cells during cell division by a mechanism analogous to that employed by microtubules in eukaryotic mitosis. Actin is found in both smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulums.
In contractile bundles, the actin-bundling protein alpha-actinin separates each thin filament by ~35 nm. This increase in distance allows thick filaments to fit in between and interact, enabling deformation or contraction. In deformation, one end of myosin is bound to the plasma membrane while the other end "walks" toward the plus end of the actin filament. This pulls the membrane into a different shape relative to the cell cortex. For contraction, the myosin molecule is usually bound to two separate filaments and both ends simultaneously "walk" toward their filament's plus end, sliding the actin filaments closer to each other. This results in the shortening, or contraction, of the actin bundle (but not the filament). This mechanism is responsible for muscle contraction and cytokinesis, the division of one cell into two.
Actin polymerization and depolymerization is necessary in chemotaxis and cytokinesis. Nucleating factors are necessary to stimulate actin polymerization. Also, Actin filaments themselves bind ATP, and hydrolysis of this ATP stimulates destabilization of the polymer.
In 1942, Straub developed a novel technique for extracting muscle protein that allowed him to isolate substantial amounts of relatively-pure actin. Straub's method is essentially the same as that used in laboratories today. Szent-Gyorgyi had previously described the more viscous form of myosin produced by slow muscle extractions as 'activated' myosin, and, since Straub's protein produced the activating effect, it was dubbed actin. The hostilities of World War II meant that Szent-Gyorgyi and Straub were unable to publish the work in Western scientific journals; it became well-known in the West only in 1945, when it was published as a supplement to the Acta Physiologica Scandinavica.
Straub continued to work on actin and in 1950 reported that actin contains bound ATP and that, during polymerisation of the protein into microfilaments, the nucleotide is hydrolysed to ADP and inorganic phosphate (which remain bound in the microfilament). Straub suggested that the transformation of ATP-bound actin to ADP-bound actin played a role in muscular contraction. In fact, this is true only in smooth muscle, and was not supported through experimentation until 2001.
The crystal structure of G-actin was solved in 1990 by Kabsch and colleagues. In the same year a model for F-actin was proposed by Holmes and colleagues. The model was derived by fitting a helix of G-actin structures according to low-resolution fiber diffraction data from the filament. Several models of the filament have been proposed since. However there is still no high-resolution X-ray structure of F-actin.
The Listeria bacteria use the cellular machinery to move around inside the host cell, by inducing directed polymerisation of actin by the ActA transmembrane protein, thus pushing the bacterial cell around.