We measured the elasticity and viscosity of brain tubulin solutions under various conditions with a cone and plate rheometer using both oscillatory and steady shearing modes. Microtubules composed of purified tubulin, purified tubulin with taxol and 3x cycled microtubule protein from pig, cow, and chicken behaved as mechanically indistinguishable viscoelastic materials. Microtubules composed of pure tubulin and heat stable microtubule-associated proteins were also similar but did not recover their mechanical properties after shearing like other samples, even after 60 min. All of the other microtubule samples were more rigid after flow orientation, suggesting that the mechanical properties of anisotropic arrays of microtubules may be substantially greater than those of randomly arranged microtubules. These experiments confirm that MAPs do not cross link microtubules. Surprisingly, under conditions where microtubule assembly is strongly inhibited (either 5 degrees or at 37 degrees C with colchicine or Ca++) tubulin was mechanically indistinguishable from microtubules at 10-20 microM concentration. By electron microscopy and ultracentrifugation these samples were devoid of microtubules or other obvious structures. However, these mechanical data are strong evidence that tubulin will spontaneously assemble into alternate structures (aggregates) in nonpolymerizing conditions. Because unpolymerized tubulin is found in significant quantities in the cytoplasm, it may contribute significantly to the viscoelastic properties of cytoplasm, especially at low deformation rates.

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