1. Changes in sarcomere length during isometric contraction of isolated semitendinosus muscle fibres from the frog were studied using laser diffraction techniques. Movements of the first-order diffraction line relative to the zero-order reference were recorded from a screen on continuously moving film. Sarcomere length changes of 50 Å could be resolved in this way.
2. Following a latent period of approximately 12 msec after the stimulus of a single skeletal muscle fibre at 1–2° C, there appeared to be a simultaneous onset of tension development and sarcomere shortening. Provided that the fibre was uniformly excited along its length, different regions shortened together by approximately the same amount. The extent of the shortening was a function of the total compliance of the tendons and tension measuring device.
3. During the plateau of a smooth tetanus no fluctuations of first-order line width or zero- to first-order line spacing were detectable at any point examined along the preparation. This finding provides evidence that, in a functionally intact fibre, no synchronous oscillations of the sarcomeres, at least no length changes exceeding 50 Å, occur during a fused tetanus. Furthermore, the fact that the first-order line did not increase in width as the preparation went from rest to full activity indicates that contraction proceeds without appreciable change in distribution of sarcomere lengths.
4. The sarcomere movements during relaxation differed along the length of the fibre. As the tension declined smoothly, sarcomeres in some parts of the fibre underwent further shortening, while the end sarcomeres near the tendons and in one or two regions in the middle segment of the fibre were further extended. These data indicate that the duration of the mechanical activity differs in different regions along the length of the fibre. The pattern of relaxation, i.e. the behaviour of the sarcomeres in different fibre segments, is unique to any particular fibre.