Each skeletal muscle fiber is a skeletal muscle cell. Within each muscle fiber are myofibrils, long cylindrical structures that lie parallel to the muscle fiber. Myofibrils run the entire length of the muscle fiber. They attach to the plasma membrane, called the sarcolemma, at their ends, so that as myofibrils shorten, the entire muscle cell contracts (Figure 16.18).
The striated appearance of skeletal muscle tissue is a result of repeating bands of the proteins actin and myosin that occur along the length of myofibrils.
Myofibrils are composed of smaller structures called myofilaments. There are two main types of myofilaments: thick filaments and thin filaments. Thick filaments are composed of the protein myosin. The primary component of thin filaments is the protein actin.
The thick and thin filaments alternate with each other in a structure called a sarcomere. The sarcomere is the unit of contraction in a muscle cell. Contraction is stimulated by an electrochemical signal from a nerve cell associated with the muscle fiber. For a muscle cell to contract, the sarcomere must shorten. However, thick and thin filaments do not shorten. Instead, they slide by one another, causing the sarcomere to shorten while the filaments remain the same length. The sliding is accomplished when a molecular extension of myosin, called the myosin head, temporarily binds to an actin filament next to it and through a change in conformation, bends, dragging the two filaments in opposite directions. The myosin head then releases its actin filament, relaxes, and then repeats the process, dragging the two filaments further along each other. The combined activity of many binding sites and repeated movements within the sarcomere causes it to contract. The coordinated contractions of many sarcomeres in a myofibril leads to contraction of the entire muscle cell and ultimately the muscle itself. The movement of the myosin head requires ATP, which provides the energy for the contraction.
View this animation (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/skeletal_muscl2) to see how muscle fibers are organized.