Microtubules that are free of microtubule-associated protein undergo dynamic changes at steady state, becoming longer but fewer in number with time through a process which was previously assumed to be based entirely on mechanisms of subunit exchange at polymer ends. However, we recently demonstrated that brain and erythrocyte microtubules are capable of joining end-to-end and suggested that polymer annealing may also affect the dynamic behavior of microtubules in vitro (Rothwell, S. W., W. A. Grasser, and D. B. Murphy, 1986, J. Cell Biol. 102:619-627). In the present study, we first show that annealing is a general property of cytoplasmic microtubules and is not a specialized characteristic of erythrocyte microtubules by documenting annealing between tryosinolated and detyrosinolated brain microtubules. We then examine the contributions of polymer annealing and subunit exchange to microtubule dynamics by analyzing the composition and length of individual polymers in a mixture of brain and erythrocyte microtubules by immunoelectron microscopy. In concentrated preparations of short-length microtubules at polymer-mass steady state, annealing was observed to be the principal factor responsible for the increase in polymer length, whereas annealing and subunit exchange contributed about equally to the reduction in microtubule number.

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