We describe here the continuous observations of the polymerization of individual microtubules in vitro by darkfield microscopy. In homogeneous preparations we verify that polymerization can occur onto both ends of microtubules. The assembly of microtubules is polar, with one end growing at three times the rate of the other. The differential rate of elongation can be used to determine the polarity of growth off cellular nucleating centers. We show that the microtubules grow off the proximal end of ciliary axonemes at a growth rate equal to that of the slow growing end of free microtubules, while growth off the distal end proceeds at the same rate as the fast growing end. Applying this technique to microtubule growth from metaphase chromosomes isolated from HeLa and CHO cells, we demonstrate that chromosomes initiate polymerization with the fast growing end facing away from the chromosome nucleation site. The opposite ends of free microtubules show different sensitivities to microtubule depolymerizing agents such as low temperature, Ca++ or colchicine as measured directly by darkfield microscopy. The differing rates of assembly and disassembly of each end of a microtubule suggest that a difference in polarity of growth off nucleating sites could serve as one basis for regulating the polymerization of different groups of microtubules in the same cell.

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