Microtubules (MTs) in the axon have a uniform polarity orientation that is recapitulated during recovery from episodes of MT depolymerization (Heidemann, S. R., M. A. Hamborg, S. J. Thomas, B. Song, S. Lindley, and D. Chu. 1984. J. Cell Biol. 99:1289-1295). This tight regulation of their organization indicates that axonal MTs are spatially regulated by discrete nucleating structures comparable in function to the centrosome. Several authors have proposed that an especially stable class of MTs in the axon may serve as these nucleating structures. In a previous report (Baas, P. W., and M. M. Black. 1990. J. Cell Biol. 111:495-509), we determined that the axons of cultured sympathetic neurons contain two classes of MT polymer, stable and labile, that differ in their sensitivity to nocodazole by roughly 35-fold. The stable and labile polymer represent long-lived and recently assembled polymer, respectively. We also determined that these two classes of polymer can be visually distinguished at the immunoelectron microscopic level based on their content of tyrosinated alpha-tubulin: the labile polymer stains densely, while the stable polymer does not stain. In the present study, we have taken advantage of these observations to directly identify MT nucleating structures in the axon. Neuron cultures were treated with nocodazole for 6 h to completely depolymerize the labile polymer in the axon, and substantially shorten the stable polymer. The cultures were then rinsed free of the drug, permitted to reassemble polymer for various periods of time, and prepared for immunoelectron microscopic localization of tyrosinated alpha-tubulin. Serial reconstruction of consecutive thin sections was undertaken to determine the spatial relationship between the stable MTs and the newly assembled polymer. All of the new polymer assembled in direct continuity with the plus ends of stable MTs, indicating that these ends are assembly competent, and hence capable of acting as nucleating structures. Our results further indicate that no self-assembly of MTs occurs in the axon, nor do any MT nucleating structures exist in the axon other than the plus ends of stable MTs. Thus the plus ends of stable MTs are the exclusive nucleating structures for MTs in the axon.

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