Learning Objectives

Describe the characteristics of muscle tissue and how these dictate muscle function.

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By the end of this section, you will be able to:

Identify the three types of muscle tissueCompare and contrast the functions of each muscle tissue type

Muscle tissue is characterized by properties that allow movement. Muscle cells are excitable; they respond to a stimulus. They are contractile, meaning they can shorten and generate a pulling force. When attached between two movable objects, such as two bones, contraction of the muscles cause the bones to move. Some muscle movement is voluntary, which means it is under conscious control. For example, a person decides to lifwynnfoundation.org a book and read a chapter on anatomy. Other movements are involuntary, meaning they are not under conscious control, such as the contraction of your pupil in bright light. Muscle tissue is classified into three types according to structure and function: skeletal, cardiac, and smooth (Table 4.2).

Table 4.2 Comparison of Structure and Properties of Muscle Tissue Types
Muscle typeStructural elementsFunctionLocation
SkeletalLong cylindrical fiber, striated, many peripherally located nucleiVoluntary movement, produces heat, protects organsAttached to bones and around entry & exit sites of body (e.g., mouth, anus)
CardiacShort, branched, striated, single central nucleusContracts to pump bloodHeart
SmoothShort, spindle-shaped, no evident striation, single nucleus in each fiberInvoluntary movement, moves food, involuntary control of respiration, moves secretions, regulates flow of blood in arteries by contractionWalls of major organs and passageways

Skeletal muscle is attached to bones and its contraction makes possible locomotion, facial expressions, posture, and other voluntary movements of the body. Forty percent of your body mass is made up of skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscles generate heat as a byproduct of their contraction and thus participate in thermal homeostasis. Shivering is an involuntary contraction of skeletal muscles in response to lower than normal body temperature. The muscle cell, or myocyte, develops from myoblasts derived from the mesoderm. Myocytes and their numbers remain relatively constant throughout life. Skeletal muscle tissue is arranged in bundles surrounded by connective tissue. Under the light microscope, muscle cells appear striated with many nuclei squeezed along the membranes. The striation is due to the regular alternation of the contractile proteins actin and myosin, along with the structural proteins that couple the contractile proteins to connective tissues. The cells are multinucleated as a result of the fusion of the many myoblasts that fuse to form each long muscle fiber.

Cardiac muscle forms the contractile walls of the heart. The cells of cardiac muscle, known as cardiomyocytes, also appear striated under the microscope. Unlike skeletal muscle fibers, cardiomyocytes are single cells with a single centrally located nucleus. A principal characteristic of cardiomyocytes is that they contract on their own intrinsic rhythm without external stimulation. Cardiomyocytes attach to one another with specialized cell junctions called intercalated discs. Intercalated discs have both anchoring junctions and gap junctions. Attached cells form long, branching cardiac muscle fibers that act as a syncytium, allowing the cells to synchronize their actions. The cardiac muscle pumps blood through the body and is under involuntary control.

Smooth muscle tissue contraction is responsible for involuntary movements in the internal organs. It forms the contractile component of the digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems as well as the airways and blood vessels. Each cell is spindle shaped with a single nucleus and no visible striations (Figure 4.4.1 – Muscle Tissue).

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Watch this video to learn more about muscle tissue. In looking through a microscope how could you distinguish skeletal muscle tissue from smooth muscle?


Chapter Review

The three types of muscle cells are skeletal, cardiac, and smooth. Their morphologies match their specific functions in the body. Skeletal muscle is voluntary and responds to conscious stimuli. The cells are striated and multinucleated appearing as long, unbranched cylinders. Cardiac muscle is involuntary and found only in the heart. Each cell is striated with a single nucleus and they attach to one another to form long fibers. Cells are attached to one another at intercalated disks. The cells are interconnected physically and electrochemically to act as a syncytium. Cardiac muscle cells contract autonomously and involuntarily. Smooth muscle is involuntary. Each cell is a spindle-shaped fiber and contains a single nucleus. No striations are evident because the actin and myosin filaments do not align in the cytoplasm.


Interactive Link Questions

Watch this video to learn more about muscle tissue. In looking through a microscope how could you distinguish skeletal muscle tissue from smooth muscle?

Skeletal muscle cells are striated.


Critical Thinking Questions

You are watching cells in a dish spontaneously contract. They are all contracting at different rates, some fast, some slow. After a while, several cells link up and they begin contracting in synchrony. Discuss what is going on and what type of cells you are looking at.

The cells in the dish are cardiomyocytes, cardiac muscle cells. They have an intrinsic ability to contract. When they link up, they form intercalating discs that allow the cells to communicate with each other and begin contracting in synchrony.

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Why does skeletal muscle look striated?

Under the light microscope, cells appear striated due to the arrangement of the contractile proteins actin and myosin.