Microtubules are rigid polymers that contribute to the static mechanical properties of cells. Because microtubules are dynamic structures whose polymerization is regulated during changes in cell shape, we have asked whether the mechanical properties of microtubules might also be modulated. We measured the flexural rigidity, or bending stiffness, of individual microtubules under a number of different conditions that affect the stability of microtubules against depolymerization. The flexural rigidity of microtubules polymerized with the slowly hydrolyzable nucleotide analogue guanylyl-(alpha, beta)-methylene-diphosphonate was 62 +/- 9 x 10(-24) Nm2 (weighted mean +/- SEM); that of microtubules stabilized with tau protein was 34 +/- 3 x 10(-24) Nm2; and that of microtubules stabilized with the antimitotic drug taxol was 32 +/- 2 x 10(-24) Nm2. For comparison, microtubules that were capped to prevent depolymerization, but were not otherwise stabilized, had a flexural rigidity of 26 +/- 2 x 10(-24) Nm2. Decreasing the temperature from 37 degrees C to approximately 25 degrees C, a condition that makes microtubules less stable, decreased the stiffness of taxol-stabilized microtubules by one-third. We thus find that the more stable a microtubule, the higher its flexural rigidity. This raises the possibility that microtubule rigidity may be regulated in vivo. In addition, the high rigidity of an unstabilized, GDP-containing microtubule suggests that a large amount of energy could be stored as mechanical strain energy in the protein lattice for subsequent force generation during microtubule depolymerization.

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