We investigated the effect of magnesium ion (Mg) on the parameters of dynamic instability of individual porcine brain microtubules. Rates of elongation and rapid shortening were measured by using video-enhanced DIC light microscopy and evaluated by using computer-generated plots of microtubule length vs time. Increasing [Mg] from 0.25 to 6 mM increased the second-order association rate constant for elongation about 25% at each end. At plus ends, this resulted in a 1.5-2-fold increase in elongation rates over the tubulin concentrations explored. Rapid shortening rates were more dramatically affected by Mg. As [Mg] was increased from 0.25 to 6 mM, the average rate of rapid shortening increased about 3-fold at plus ends and 4-5-fold at minus ends. The ends had roughly equivalent average rates at low [Mg], of 30-45 microns/min. At any Mg concentration, rates of disassembly varied from one microtubule to another, and often an individual microtubule would exhibit more than one rate during a single shortening phase. Individual rates at 6 mM Mg varied from 12 to 250 microns/min. Over the concentration range explored, Mg affected the frequencies of transition from elongation to shortening and back only at minus ends. Minus ends were relatively stable at low [Mg], having 4 times the frequency of rescue than at high [Mg], and a lower frequency of catastrophe (particularly evident at low tubulin concentrations). Plus ends, surprisingly, were highly unstable at all Mg concentrations investigated, having about the same transition frequencies as did the least stable (high Mg) minus ends. Our results have implications for models of the GTP cap, again emphasizing that GTP caps cannot build up in proportion to elongation rate, and must be constrained to the tips of growing microtubules.