The length dynamics both of microtubule-associated protein (MAP)-rich and MAP-depleted bovine brain microtubules were examined at polymer mass steady state. In both preparations, the microtubules exhibited length redistributions shortly after polymer mass steady state was attained. With time, however, both populations relaxed to a state in which no further changes in length distributions could be detected. Shearing the microtubules or diluting the microtubule suspensions transiently increased the extent to which microtubule length redistributions occurred, but again the microtubules relaxed to a state in which changes in the polymer length distributions were not detected. Under steady-state conditions of constant polymer mass and stable microtubule length distribution, both MAP-rich and MAP-depleted microtubules exhibited behavior consistent with treadmilling. MAPs strongly suppressed the magnitude of length redistributions and the steady-state treadmilling rates. These data indicate that the inherent tendency of microtubules in vitro is to relax to a steady state in which net changes in the microtubule length distributions are zero. If the basis of the observed length redistributions is the spontaneous loss and regain of GTP-tubulin ("GTP caps") at microtubule ends, then in order to account for stable length distributions the microtubule ends must reside in the capped state far longer than in the uncapped state, and uncapped microtubule ends must be rapidly recapped. The data suggest that microtubules in cells may have an inherent tendency to remain in the polymerized state, and that microtubule disassembly must be induced actively.

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