We have developed a method to distinguish microtubule associated protein (MAP)-containing regions from MAP-free regions within a microtubule, or within microtubule sub-populations. In this method, we measure the MAP-dependent stabilization of microtubule regions to dilution-induced disassembly of the polymer. The appropriate microtubule regions are identified by assembly in the presence of [3H]GTP, and assayed by filter trapping and quantitation of microtubule regions that contain label. We find that MAPs bind very rapidly to polymer binding sites and that they do not exchange from these sites measurably once bound. Also, very low concentrations of MAPs yield measurable stabilization of local microtubule regions. Unlike the stable tubule only polypeptide (STOP) proteins, MAPs do not exhibit any sliding behavior under our assay conditions. These results predict the presence of different stability subclasses of microtubules when MAPs are present in less than saturating amounts. The data can readily account for the observed "dynamic instability" of microtubules through unequal MAP distributions. Further, we report that MAP dependent stabilization is quantitatively reversed by MAP phosphorylation, but that calmodulin, in large excess, has no specific influence on MAP protein activity when MAPs are on microtubules.

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