Observation of microtubule growth at different rates by cryo-electron microscopy reveals that the ends range from blunt to long, gently curved sheets. The mean sheet length increases with the growth rate while the width of the distributions increases with the extent of assembly. The combination of a concentration dependent growth rate of the tubulin sheet with a variable closure rate of the microtubule cylinder, results in a model in which stochastic fluctuations in sheet length and tubulin conformation confine GTP-tubulins to microtubule ends. We propose that the variability of microtubule growth rate observed by video microscopy (Gildersleeve, R. F., A. R. Cross, K. E. Cullen, A. P. Fagen, and R. C. Williams. 1992. J. Biol. Chem. 267: 7995-8006, and this study) is due to the variation in the rate of cylinder closure. The curvature of the sheets at the end of growing microtubules and the small oligomeric structures observed at the end of disassembling microtubules, indicate that tubulin molecules undergo conformational changes both during assembly and disassembly.

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