Rapid movement of microtubules in axons

Curr Biol. 2002 Sep 3;12(17):1496-1501. doi: 10.1016/s0960-9822(02)01078-3.


Cytoskeletal and cytosolic proteins are transported along axons in the slow components of axonal transport at average rates of about 0.002-0.1 microm/s. This movement is essential for axonal growth and survival, yet the mechanism is poorly understood. Many studies on slow axonal transport have focused on tubulin, the subunit protein of microtubules, but attempts to observe the movement of this protein in cultured nerve cells have been largely unsuccessful. Here, we report direct observations of the movement of microtubules in cultured nerve cells using a modified fluorescence photobleaching strategy combined with difference imaging. The movements are rapid, with average rates of 1 microm/s, but they are also infrequent and highly asynchronous. These observations indicate that microtubules are propelled along axons by fast motors. We propose that the overall rate of movement is slow because the microtubules spend only a small proportion of their time moving. The rapid, infrequent, and highly asynchronous nature of the movement may explain why the axonal transport of tubulin has eluded detection in so many other studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Axons / ultrastructure
  • Cattle
  • Fluorescent Dyes / radiation effects
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Microinjections
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Microtubules / physiology*
  • Molecular Motor Proteins / physiology*
  • Movement
  • Photochemistry
  • Rats
  • Rhodamines / radiation effects
  • Superior Cervical Ganglion / cytology
  • Tubulin / metabolism*


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Molecular Motor Proteins
  • Rhodamines
  • Tubulin