The effects of calcium (Ca) were assessed using video-enhanced differential interference contrast light microscopy on individual microtubules in vitro. Phosphocellulose-purified (PC) and microtubule associated protein (MAP)-containing preparations of porcine brain tubulin were assembled in a flow chamber onto sperm axoneme fragments and the pattern of growth and shortening of the microtubules was observed. Tubulin plus Ca was then added to the chamber and observation continued. Ca promoted the disassembly of microtubules by specifically promoting the catastrophe reaction in both PC- and MAP-containing microtubules, without an appreciable change in elongation rate. The effect on catastrophe frequency increased very rapidly above 0.5 mM free Ca, implying a possible cooperative effect. The rescue rate remained very high after Ca addition in MAP-containing microtubules, and the shortening rate was unchanged, while in phosphocellulose-purified microtubules, rescue appeared to be decreased by Ca addition and shortening rates increased 4 to 6-fold. These results illustrate that Ca can directly destabilize growing microtubule ends without changing the effective concentration of free tubulin, and that this effect can be seen even against the background of the profound differences in dynamics conferred by the microtubule-associated proteins. Considered within models of the GTP cap, the results imply that high Ca may act to increase the rate of GTP hydrolysis within the cap.