Tau is a developmentally regulated microtubule-associated protein that influences microtubule behavior by directly associating with tubulin. The carboxyl terminus of tau contains multiple 18-amino acid repeats that bind microtubules and are separated by 13-14-amino acid inter-repeat (IR) regions previously thought to function as "linkers." Here, we have performed a high resolution deletion analysis of tau and identified the IR region located between repeats 1 and 2 (the R1-R2 IR) as a unique microtubule binding site with more than twice the binding affinity of any individual repeat. Truncation analyses and site-directed mutagenesis reveal that the binding activity of this site is derived primarily from lys265 and lys272, with a lesser contribution from lys271. These results predict strong, discrete electrostatic interactions between the R1-R2 IR and tubulin, in contrast to the distributed array of weak interactions thought to underlie the association between 18-amino acid repeats and microtubules (Butner, K. A., and M. W. Kirschner. J. Cell Biol. 115:717-730). Moreover, competition assays suggest that the R1-R2 IR associates with microtubules at tubulin site(s) distinct from those bound by the repeats. Finally, a synthetic peptide corresponding to just 10 amino acids of the R1-R2 IR is sufficient to promote tubulin polymerization in a sequence-dependent manner. Since the R1-R2 IR is specifically expressed in adult tau, its action may underlie some of the developmental transitions observed in neuronal microtubule organization. We suggest that the R1-R2 IR may establish an adult-specific, high affinity anchor that tethers the otherwise mobile tau molecule to the tubulin lattice, thereby increasing microtubule stability. Moreover, the absence of R1-R2 IR expression during early development may allow for the cytoskeletal plasticity required of immature neurons.

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