The structure and organization of microtubules


Microtubules are essential components of the cytoskeleton found in eukaryotic cells. They play a crucial role in maintaining cell shape, providing structural support, and facilitating various cellular processes, including cell division and intracellular transport. In this article, we will explore the structure and organization of microtubules to understand their functions and contributions to cellular biology.

1. Structure of Microtubules

1.1 Tubulin Proteins

Microtubules are composed of tubulin proteins, which are globular proteins that form long polymers. Each tubulin protein is made up of two subunits: alpha-tubulin and beta-tubulin. These subunits are arranged in a head-to-tail manner, forming a dimer.

1.2 Protofilaments

Individual tubulin dimers assemble into protofilaments, which are linear polymers of tubulin subunits. Protofilaments consist of a linear chain of alternating alpha-tubulin and beta-tubulin subunits. Typically, 13 protofilaments align side by side to form a cylindrical structure, giving rise to the characteristic tubular shape of microtubules.

1.3 Microtubule Wall

The arrangement of protofilaments forms the microtubule wall. The lateral interactions between adjacent protofilaments are facilitated by non-covalent bonds, including hydrogen bonds and van der Waals forces. These interactions contribute to the stability and rigidity of the microtubule structure.

2. Organization of Microtubules

2.1 Nucleation

Microtubule nucleation is the process by which the assembly of tubulin subunits begins. Nucleation typically occurs at specialized structures within the cell called microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs). The most well-known MTOC is the centrosome, located near the nucleus in animal cells. Other MTOCs, such as basal bodies and spindle pole bodies, are found in specific cell types.

2.2 Polymerization and Dynamic Instability

Once nucleated, microtubules can elongate through the addition of tubulin subunits to their ends. This process, known as polymerization or assembly, is driven by the hydrolysis of guanosine triphosphate (GTP) bound to beta-tubulin. Microtubules can also undergo dynamic instability, switching between phases of growth and shrinkage. This property allows microtubules to explore the cellular space and perform their various functions.

2.3 Organization within the Cytoskeleton

Microtubules are a major component of the cytoskeleton, along with actin filaments and intermediate filaments. They form an interconnected network throughout the cell, providing structural support and facilitating cell shape maintenance. Microtubules also serve as tracks for intracellular transport, allowing for the movement of organelles, vesicles, and molecular motors along their length.

3. Post-translational Modifications

3.1 Acetylation and Polyglutamylation

Microtubules undergo various post-translational modifications that can influence their stability and interactions with other cellular components. Acetylation and polyglutamylation are common modifications that occur on tubulin subunits. Acetylation of alpha-tubulin has been associated with increased stability, while polyglutamylation can affect motor protein binding and microtubule dynamics.

3.2 Tyrosination and Detyrosination

Tyrosination and detyrosination are reversible modifications that occur at the C-terminal end of alpha-tubulin. Detyrosination involves the removal of a tyrosine residue from the tubulin subunit. These modifications can influence microtubule stability and interactions with proteins involved in intracellular transport.


Microtubules are dynamic structures composed of tubulin subunits arranged in protofilaments that form a tubular shape. They play crucial roles in cellular organization, providing structural support, facilitating intracellular transport, and enabling cell division. The organization of microtubules within the cytoskeleton allows for the maintenance of cell shape and the movement of organelles and vesicles. Post-translational modifications of microtubules further regulate their stability and interactions with other cellular components. Understanding the structure and organization of microtubules provides insights into their diverse functions and their significance in cellular biology.

Frequently Asked Questions: Microtubules

1. What are microtubules?

Microtubules are hollow, tubular structures found in the cytoplasm of cells. They are composed of protein subunits called tubulin and are an essential component of the cell’s cytoskeleton. Microtubules play crucial roles in various cellular processes, including cell division, intracellular transport, maintenance of cell shape, and the organization of cell structures.

2. What is the structure of microtubules?

Microtubules have a cylindrical shape with an outer diameter of about 25 nanometers (nm) and an inner diameter of about 15 nm. They are composed of repeating subunits called α-tubulin and β-tubulin, which combine to form a tubular structure. These subunits arrange themselves in a helical pattern, creating the hollow tube characteristic of microtubules.

3. What is the function of microtubules?

Microtubules serve various important functions in cells, including:

  • Cell division: Microtubules form the mitotic spindle, a structure that helps separate chromosomes during cell division.
  • Intracellular transport: They provide tracks for motor proteins to move along, facilitating the transport of vesicles, organelles, and other cellular components within the cell.
  • Cell shape and support: Microtubules contribute to the maintenance of cell shape and provide structural support to cells.
  • Cilia and flagella movement: Microtubules are responsible for the beating motion of cilia and flagella, which are cellular appendages involved in locomotion and moving fluids across cell surfaces.
  • Organelle positioning: Microtubules help position organelles within the cell and maintain their spatial organization.

4. How are microtubules involved in cell division?

During cell division, microtubules form the mitotic spindle, a complex structure that separates duplicated chromosomes into two daughter cells. The spindle is composed of microtubules called spindle fibers, which attach to specific regions on the chromosomes called kinetochores. By shortening and lengthening, microtubules exert forces on the chromosomes, pulling them apart and ensuring their proper distribution to the daughter cells.

5. Can microtubules be targeted for medical purposes?

Microtubules are a target for certain cancer treatments. Some anti-cancer drugs, known as microtubule inhibitors, interfere with the normal functioning of microtubules. These drugs can prevent cell division by disrupting the assembly or stability of microtubules, thereby inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. Examples of microtubule inhibitors used in cancer chemotherapy include paclitaxel and vinblastine.

These are some of the frequently asked questions about microtubules. If you have more specific questions or need further information, feel free to ask!