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Curr Biol. 1994 Dec 1;4(12):1053-61.

The minimum GTP cap required to stabilize microtubules.

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Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0448, USA.

Erratum in

  • Curr Biol 1995 Feb 1;5(2):215.



Microtubules polymerized from pure tubulin show the unusual property of dynamic instability, in which both growing and shrinking polymers coexist at steady state. Shortly after its addition to a microtubule end, a tubulin subunit hydrolyzes its bound GTP. Studies with non-hydrolyzable analogs have shown that GTP hydrolysis is not required for microtubule assembly, but is essential for generating a dynamic polymer, in which the subunits at the growing tip have bound GTP and those in the bulk of the polymer have bound GDP. It has been suggested that loss of the 'GTP cap' through dissociation or hydrolysis exposes the unstable GDP core, leading to rapid depolymerization. However, evidence for a stabilizing cap has been very difficult to obtain.


We developed an assay to determine the minimum GTP cap necessary to stabilize a microtubule from shrinking. Assembly of a small number of subunits containing a slowly hydrolyzed GTP analog (GMPCPP) onto the end of dynamic microtubules stabilized the polymer to dilution. By labeling the subunits with rhodamine, we measured the size of the cap and found that as few as 40 subunits were sufficient to stabilize a microtubule.


On the basis of statistical arguments, in which the proportion of stabilized microtubules is compared to the probability that when 40 GMPCPP-tubulin subunits have polymerized onto a microtubule end, all protofilaments have added at least one GMPCPP-tubulin subunit, our measurements of cap size support a model in which a single GTP subunit at the end of each of the 13 protofilaments of a microtubule is sufficient for stabilization. Depolymerization of a microtubule may be initiated by an exposed tubulin-GDP subunit at even a single position. These results have implications for the structure of microtubules and their means of regulation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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