Glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) is an intermediate filament (IF) protein that is expressed by numerous cell types of the central nervous system (CNS) including astrocytes and ependymal cells. GFAP has also been found to be expressed in glomeruli and peritubular fibroblasts, Leydig cells of the testis, keratinocytes, osteocytes and chondrocytes and stellate cells of the pancreas and liver. GFAP is a type III IF protein that is closely related to its non-epithelial family members, vimentin, desmin, and peripherin, which are all involved in the structure and function of the cell’s cytoskeleton. GFAP is thought to help to maintain astrocyte mechanical strength, as well as the shape of cells.
Type III intermediate filaments are highly conserved and contain three domains, named the head, rod and tail domains. This rod domain coils around that of another filament to form a dimer, with the N-terminal and C-terminal of each filament aligned. Type III filaments such as GFAP are capable of forming both homodimers and heterodimers; GFAP can polymerize with other type III proteins or with neurofilament light chain protein (NF-L). Interestingly, GFAP and other type III IF proteins cannot assemble with keratins, the type I and II intermediate filaments: in cells that express both proteins, two separate intermediate filament networks form.
To form networks, the initial GFAP dimers combine to make staggered tetramers, which are the basic subunits of an intermediate filament. The non-helical head and tail domains are necessary for filament formation. The head and tail regions have greater variability of sequence and structure. In spite of this increased variability, the head of GFAP contains two conserved arginines and an aromatic residue that are required for proper assembly.
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