Microtubules are key structural and transport elements in cells. The dynamics at microtubule ends are characterized by periods of slow growth, followed by stochastic switching events termed "catastrophes," in which microtubules suddenly undergo rapid shortening. Growing microtubules are thought to be protected from catastrophe by a GTP-tubulin "cap": GTP-tubulin subunits add to the tips of growing microtubules but are subsequently hydrolyzed to GDP-tubulin subunits once they are incorporated into the microtubule lattice. Loss of the GTP-tubulin cap exposes GDP-tubulin subunits at the microtubule tip, resulting in a catastrophe event. However, the mechanistic basis for sudden loss of the GTP cap, leading to catastrophe, is not known. To investigate microtubule catastrophe events, we performed 3D mechanochemical simulations that account for interactions between neighboring protofilaments. We found that there are two separate factors that contribute to catastrophe events in the 3D simulation: the GTP-tubulin cap size, which settles into a steady-state value that depends on the free tubulin concentration during microtubule growth, and the structure of the microtubule tip. Importantly, 3D simulations predict, and both fluorescence and electron microscopy experiments confirm, that microtubule tips become more tapered as the microtubule grows. This effect destabilizes the tip and ultimately contributes to microtubule catastrophe. Thus, the likelihood of a catastrophe event may be intimately linked to the aging physical structure of the growing microtubule tip. These results have important consequences for catastrophe regulation in cells, as microtubule-associated proteins could promote catastrophe events in part by modifying microtubule tip structures.
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