Cysteine residues play important roles in the control of tubulin function. To determine which of the six cysteine residues in beta-tubulin are critical to tubulin function, we mutated the cysteines in Saccharomyces cerevisiae beta-tubulin individually to alanine and serine residues. Of the twelve mutations, only three produced significant effects: C12S, C354A, and C354S. The C12S mutation was lethal in the haploid, but the C12A mutation had no observable phenotype. Based on interactive views of the electron crystallographic structure of tubulin, we suggest that substitution of serine for cysteine at this position has a destabilizing effect on the interaction of tubulin with the exchangeable GTP. The two C354 mutations, although not lethal, produced dramatic effects on microtubules and cellular processes that require microtubules. The C354 mutant cells had decreased growth rates, a slowed mitosis, increased resistance to benomyl, and impaired nuclear migration and spindle assembly. The C354A mutation produced a more severe phenotype than the C354S mutation: the haploid cells had chromosome segregation defects, only 50% of cells in a culture were viable, and a significant percentage of the cells were misshapened. Cytoplasmic microtubules in the C354S and C354A cells were longer than in the control strain and spindle structures appeared shorter and thicker. Both cytoplasmic and spindle microtubules in the two C354 mutants were extremely stable to cold temperature. After 24 h at 4 degrees C, the microtubules were still present and, in fact, very long and thick tubulin polymers had formed. Evidence exists to indicate that the C354 residue in mammalian tubulin is near the colchicine binding site and the electron crystal structure of tubulin places the residue at the interface between the alpha- and beta-subunits. The sulfhydryl group is situated in a polar environment, which may explain why the alanine mutation is more severe than the serine mutation. When the C12S and the two C354 mutations were made in a diploid strain, the mutated tubulin was incorporated into microtubules and the resulting heterozygotes had phenotypes that were intermediate between those of the mutated haploids and the wild-type strains. The results suggest that the C12 and C354 residues play important roles in the structure and function of tubulin.