Three isoforms of human tau protein were compared for their abilities to induce microtubule assembly. The three isoforms, tau 3 (tau containing three microtubule-binding domains), tau 4 (tau containing four microtubule-binding domains) and tau 4L (tau containing four microtubule binding domains plus a 58-amino-acid insert near the N-terminus) were expressed in E. coli and purified using ammonium sulfate precipitation, ion exchange, and size exclusion chromatography. All three isoforms induced microtubule assembly at micromolar concentrations and showed similar critical concentrations for assembly of 0.4-0.45 microM. However, tau 4 induced microtubule formation at a rate five- to tenfold faster than either tau 3 or tau 4L. The rate of microtubule elongation seen with tau 4 was twofold greater than with tau 3 or tau 4L, suggesting that the faster rate of microtubule assembly seen with tau 4 was due, at least in part, to faster elongation. Tau 4 induced a greater number of microtubules to form at steady state than did tau 3 or tau 4L. The microtubules generated with each tau isoform had similar steady-state length distributions and were equally susceptible to cold-induced disassembly. These results indicate that the additional microtubule-binding domain in tau 4 enhances microtubule assembly, while the 58-amino-acid insert negates the stimulatory effect of the fourth microtubule-binding domain.