Evolving tip structures can explain age-dependent microtubule catastrophe

Courtney E. Coombes, Ami Yamamoto, Madeline R. Kenzie, David J. Odde, Melissa K. Gardner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Microtubules are key structural and transport elements in cells. The dynamics at microtubule ends are characterized by periods of slow growth, followed by stochastic switching events termed "catastrophes," in which microtubules suddenly undergo rapid shortening [1]. Growing microtubules are thought to be protected from catastrophe by a GTP-tubulin "cap": GTP-tubulin subunits add to the tips of growing microtubules but are subsequently hydrolyzed to GDP-tubulin subunits once they are incorporated into the microtubule lattice [2-4]. Loss of the GTP-tubulin cap exposes GDP-tubulin subunits at the microtubule tip, resulting in a catastrophe event [5-9]. However, the mechanistic basis for sudden loss of the GTP cap, leading to catastrophe, is not known. To investigate microtubule catastrophe events, we performed 3D mechanochemical simulations that account for interactions between neighboring protofilaments [10-12]. We found that there are two separate factors that contribute to catastrophe events in the 3D simulation: the GTP-tubulin cap size, which settles into a steady-state value that depends on the free tubulin concentration during microtubule growth, and the structure of the microtubule tip. Importantly, 3D simulations predict, and both fluorescence and electron microscopy experiments confirm, that microtubule tips become more tapered as the microtubule grows. This effect destabilizes the tip and ultimately contributes to microtubule catastrophe. Thus, the likelihood of a catastrophe event may be intimately linked to the aging physical structure of the growing microtubule tip. These results have important consequences for catastrophe regulation in cells, as microtubule-associated proteins could promote catastrophe events in part by modifying microtubule tip structures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1342-1348
Number of pages7
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 22 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Mark McClellan for experimental technical assistance. We also thank Joe Howard and Marija Zanic for the gift of EB1-GFP protein and for helpful discussions. This work was supported by the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences (supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts) (M.K.G.) and National Institutes of Health grants GM103833 (M.K.G.) and GM071522 (D.J.O.). The TEM work was carried out in the Characterization Facility at the University of Minnesota, a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Materials Research Facilities Network ( www.mrfn.org ), via the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program.


Dive into the research topics of 'Evolving tip structures can explain age-dependent microtubule catastrophe'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this