Background: A breakthrough in the understanding of centriole assembly was provided by the characterization of the UNI3 gene in Chlamydomonas. Deletion of this gene, found to encode a novel member of the tubulin superfamily, delta-tubulin, results in the loss of the C-tubule, in the nine microtubule triplets which are the hallmark of centrioles and basal bodies. Delta-tubulin homologs have been identified in the genomes of mammals and protozoa, but their phylogenetic relationships are unclear and their function is not yet known.
Results: Using the method of gene-specific silencing, we have inactivated the Paramecium delta-tubulin gene, which was recently identified. This inactivation leads to loss of the C-tubule in all basal bodies, without any effect on ciliogenesis. This deficiency does not directly affect basal body duplication, but perturbs the cortical cytoskeleton, progressively leading to mislocalization and loss of basal bodies and to altered cell size and shape. Furthermore, additional loss of B- and even A-tubules at one or more triplet sites are observed: around these incomplete cylinders, the remaining doublets are nevertheless positioned according to the native ninefold symmetry.
Conclusions: The fact that in two distinct phyla, delta-tubulin plays a similar role provides a new basis for interpreting phylogenetic relationships among delta-tubulins. The role of delta-tubulin in C-tubule assembly reveals that tubulins contribute subtle specificities at microtubule nucleation sites. Our observations also demonstrate the existence of a prepattern for the ninefold symmetry of the organelle which is maintained even if less than 9 triplets develop.