Spontaneous Formation of a Globally Connected Contractile Network in a Microtubule-Motor System

Biophys J. 2016 Jul 26;111(2):373-385. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2016.06.010.


Microtubule (MT) networks play key roles in cell division, intracellular transport, and cell motility. These functions of MT networks occur through interactions between MTs and various associated proteins, notably motor proteins that bundle and slide MTs. Our objective in this study was to address the question of how motors determine the nature of MT networks. We conducted in vitro assays using homotetrameric kinesin Eg5, a motor protein involved in the formation and maintenance of the mitotic spindle. The mixing of Eg5 and MTs produced a range of spatiotemporal dynamics depending on the motor/filament ratio. Low motor/filament ratios produced globally connected static MT networks with sparsely distributed contractile active nodes (motor-accumulating points with radially extending MTs). Increasing the motor/filament ratio facilitated the linking of contractile active nodes and led to a global contraction of the network. When the motor/filament ratio was further increased, densely distributed active nodes formed local clusters and segmented the network into pieces with their strong contractile forces. Altering the properties of the motor through the use of chimeric Eg5, which has kinesin-1 heads, resulted in the generation of many isolated asters. These results suggest that the spatial distribution of contractile active nodes determines the dynamics of MT-motor networks. We then developed a coarse-grained model of MT-motor networks and identified two essential features for reproducing the experimentally observed patterns: an accumulation of motors that form the active nodes necessary to generate contractile forces, and a nonlinear dependency of contractile force on motor densities. Our model also enabled us to characterize the mechanical properties of the contractile network. Our study provides insight into how local motor-MT interactions generate the spatiotemporal dynamics of macroscopic network structures.

MeSH terms

  • Actins / metabolism
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Elasticity
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Kinesins / chemistry
  • Kinesins / metabolism*
  • Mechanical Phenomena*
  • Microtubules / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Protein Multimerization
  • Protein Structure, Quaternary
  • Spindle Apparatus / metabolism


  • Actins
  • KIF11 protein, human
  • Kinesins