Microtubules polymerize from GTP-liganded tubulin dimers, but are essentially made of GDP-liganded tubulin. We investigate the tug-of-war resulting from the fact that GDP-liganded tubulin favors a curved configuration, but is forced to remain in a straight one when part of a microtubule. We point out that near the end of a microtubule, the proximity of the end shifts the balance in this tug-of-war, with some protofilament bending as result. This somewhat relaxes the microtubule lattice near its end, resulting in a structural cap. This structural cap thus is a simple mechanical consequence of two well-established facts: protofilaments made of GDP-liganded tubulin have intrinsic curvature, and microtubules are elastic, made from material that can yield to forces, in casu its own intrinsic forces. We explore possible properties of this structural cap, and demonstrate 1) how it allows both polymerization from GTP-liganded tubulin and rapid depolymerization in its absence; 2) how rescue can occur; 3) how a third, meta-stable intermediate state is possible and can explain some experimental results; and 4) how the tapered tips observed at polymerizing microtubule ends are stabilized during growth, though unable to accommodate a lateral cap. This scenario thus supports the widely accepted GTP-cap model by suggesting a stabilizing mechanism that explains the many aspects of dynamic instability.
ASJC Scopus subject areas