Although the mechanism of microtubule dynamic instability is thought to involve the hydrolysis of tubulin-bound GTP, the mechanism of GTP hydrolysis and the basis of microtubule stability are controversial. Video microscopy of individual microtubules and dilution protocols were used to examine the size and lifetime of the stabilizing cap. Purified porcine brain tubulin (7-23 microM) was assembled at 37 degrees C onto both ends of isolated sea urchin axoneme fragments in a miniature flow cell to give a 10-fold variation in elongation rate. The tubulin concentration in the region of microtubule growth could be diluted rapidly (by 84% within 3 s of the onset of dilution). Upon perfusion with buffer containing no tubulin, microtubules experienced a catastrophe (conversion from elongation to rapid shortening) within 4-6 s on average after dilution to 16% of the initial concentration, independent of the predilution rate of elongation and length. Based on extrapolation of catastrophe frequency to zero tubulin concentration, the estimated lifetime of the stable cap after infinite dilution was less than 3-4 s for plus and minus ends, much shorter than the approximately 200 s observed at steady state (Walker, R. A., E. T. O'Brien, N. K. Pryer, M. Soboeiro, W. A. Voter, H. P. Erickson, and E. D. Salmon. 1988. J. Cell Biol. 107:1437-1448.). We conclude that during elongation, both plus and minus ends are stabilized by a short region (approximately 200 dimers or less) and that the size of the stable cap is independent of 10-fold variation in elongation rate. These results eliminate models of dynamic instability which predict extensive "build-up" stabilizing caps and support models which constrain the cap to the elongating tip. We propose that the cell may take advantage of such an assembly mechanism by using "catastrophe factors" that can promote frequent catastrophe even at high elongation rates by transiently binding to microtubule ends and briefly inhibiting GTP-tubulin association.

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