We used electron tomography to examine microtubules (MTs) growing from pure tubulin in vitro as well as two classes of MTs growing in cells from six species. The tips of all these growing MTs display bent protofilaments (PFs) that curve away from the MT axis, in contrast with previously reported MTs growing in vitro whose tips are either blunt or sheetlike. Neither high pressure nor freezing is responsible for the PF curvatures we see. The curvatures of PFs on growing and shortening MTs are similar; all are most curved at their tips, suggesting that guanosine triphosphate-tubulin in solution is bent and must straighten to be incorporated into the MT wall. Variations in curvature suggest that PFs are flexible in their plane of bending but rigid to bending out of that plane. Modeling by Brownian dynamics suggests that PF straightening for MT growth can be achieved by thermal motions, providing a simple mechanism with which to understand tubulin polymerization.
© 2018 McIntosh et al.