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Mol Biol Cell. 1995 Dec; 6(12): 1887–1902.
PMCID: PMC366657

Domains of tau protein, differential phosphorylation, and dynamic instability of microtubules.


The dynamic instability of microtubules is thought to be regulated by MAPs and phosphorylation. Here we describe the effect of the neuronal microtubule-associated protein tau by observing the dynamics of single microtubules by video microscopy. We used recombinant tau isoforms and tau mutants, and we phosphorylated tau by the neuronal kinases MARK (affecting the KXGS motifs within tau's repeat domain) and cdk5 (phosphorylating Ser-Pro motifs in the regions flanking the repeats). The variants of tau can be broadly classified into three categories, depending on their potency to affect microtubule dynamics. "Strong" tau variants have four repeats and both flanking regions. "Medium" variants have one to three repeats and both flanking regions. "Weak" variants lack one or both of the flanking regions, or have no repeats; with such constructs, microtubule dynamics is not significantly different from that of pure tubulin. N- or C-terminal tails of tau have no influence on dynamic instability. The two ends of microtubules (plus and minus) showed different activities but analogous behavior. These results are consistent with the "jaws" model of tau where the flanking regions are considered as targeting domains whereas the addition of repeats makes them catalytically active in terms of microtubule stabilization. The dominant changes in the parameters of dynamic instability induced by tau are those in the dissociation rate and in the catastrophe rate (up to 30-fold). Other rates change only moderately or not at all (association rate increased up to twofold, rates of rescue or rapid shrinkage decreased up to approximately twofold). The order of repeats has little influence on microtubule dynamics (i.e., repeats can be re-arranged or interchanged), arguing in favor of the "distributed weak binding" model proposed by Butner and Kirschner (1991); however, we confirmed the presence of a "hotspot" of binding potential involving Lys274 and Lys281 observed by Goode and Feinstein, 1994. Phosphorylation of Ser-Pro motifs by cdk5 (mainly Ser 202, 235, and 404) in the flanking regions had a moderate effect on microtubule dynamics while phosphorylation at the "Alzheimer"-site Ser262 MARK eliminated tau's interactions with microtubules. In both cases the predominant effects of phosphorylation are on the rates of tubulin dissociation and catastrophe whereas the effects on the rates of association or rescue are comparatively small.

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