Microtubule organization and function in epithelial cells

Traffic. 2004 Jan;5(1):1-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0854.2003.00149.x.


Microtubules are essential for many aspects of polarity in multicellular organisms, ranging from the asymmetric distribution of cell-fate determinants in the one-cell embryo to the transient polarity generated in migrating fibroblasts. Epithelial cells exhibit permanent cell polarity characterized by apical and basolateral surface domains of distinct protein and lipid composition that are segregated by tight junctions. They are also endowed with a microtubule network that reflects the asymmetry of their cell surface: microtubule minus-ends face the apical- and microtubule plus-ends the basal domain. Strikingly, the formation of distinct surface domains during epithelial differentiation is accompanied by the re-organization of microtubules from a uniform array focused at the centrosome to the noncentrosomal network that aligns along the apico-basolateral polarity axis. The significance of this coincidence for epithelial morphogenesis and the signaling mechanisms that drive microtubule repolymerization in developing epithelia remain major unresolved questions that we are only beginning to address. Studies in cultured polarized epithelial cells have established that microtubules serve as tracks that facilitate targeted vesicular transport. Novel findings suggest, moreover, that microtubule-based transport promotes protein sorting, and even the generation of transport carriers in the endo- and exocytic pathways.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cell Polarity
  • Endosomes / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Golgi Apparatus / metabolism
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Microtubules / metabolism*
  • Protein Transport / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Transport Vesicles / metabolism


  • Membrane Proteins