Cells contain multiple tubulin isotypes that are the products of different genes and posttranslational modifications. It has been proposed that tubulin isotypes become segregated into different classes of microtubules each adapted to specific activities and functions. To determine if mixtures of tubulin isotypes segregate into different classes of polymers in vitro, we used immunoelectron microscopy to examine the composition of microtubule copolymers that assembled from mixtures of purified tubulin subunits from chicken brain and erythrocytes, each of which has been shown to exhibit distinct assembly properties in vitro. We observed that (a) the two isotypes coassemble rapidly and efficiently despite the fact that each isotype exhibits its own unique biochemical and assembly properties; (b) at low monomer concentrations the ratio of tubulin isotypes changes along the lengths of elongating copolymers resulting in gradients in immuno-gold labeling; (c) two distinct classes of copolymers each containing a distinct ratio of isotypes assemble simultaneously in the same subunit mixture; and (d) subunits and polymers of different isotypes associate nearly equally well with each other, there being only a slight bias favoring interactions among subunits and polymers of the same isotype. The observations agree with previous studies on the homogeneous distribution of multiple isotypes within cells and suggest that if segregation of isotypes does occur in vivo, it is most likely directed by cell-specific microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) or specialized intracellular conditions.
Microtubules that are free of microtubule-associated protein undergo dynamic changes at steady state, becoming longer but fewer in number with time through a process which was previously assumed to be based entirely on mechanisms of subunit exchange at polymer ends. However, we recently demonstrated that brain and erythrocyte microtubules are capable of joining end-to-end and suggested that polymer annealing may also affect the dynamic behavior of microtubules in vitro (Rothwell, S. W., W. A. Grasser, and D. B. Murphy, 1986, J. Cell Biol. 102:619-627). In the present study, we first show that annealing is a general property of cytoplasmic microtubules and is not a specialized characteristic of erythrocyte microtubules by documenting annealing between tryosinolated and detyrosinolated brain microtubules. We then examine the contributions of polymer annealing and subunit exchange to microtubule dynamics by analyzing the composition and length of individual polymers in a mixture of brain and erythrocyte microtubules by immunoelectron microscopy. In concentrated preparations of short-length microtubules at polymer-mass steady state, annealing was observed to be the principal factor responsible for the increase in polymer length, whereas annealing and subunit exchange contributed about equally to the reduction in microtubule number.