Microtubules: Definition, Functions & Structure

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  • 0:01 What Holds a Cell Together?
  • 1:30 Microtubule Structure
  • 2:40 Plus and Minus Ends
  • 3:15 Separation of Sister…
  • 4:15 Intracellular Transport
  • 5:45 Flagella and Cilia
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katy Metzler

Katy teaches biology at the college level and did her Ph.D. work on infectious diseases and immunology.

The cytoskeleton gives cells structure and shape and allows them to move around. It's also important for intracellular transport. Learn about microtubules, a type of cytoskeletal filament that forms intracellular highways and moveable appendages.

What Holds a Cell Together?

Just as our skeletons give our bodies' structure and shape, the cytoskeleton gives cells structure and shape. The cytoskeleton is responsible for lots of important cellular functions:

  • It allows cells to move
  • Engulf particles
  • Brace themselves against pulling forces
  • Transport vesicles through the cytosol
  • Separate chromosomes during cell division
  • Allows our muscles to contract

Clearly, things just wouldn't be the same without the cytoskeleton.

In eukaryotic cells, the cytoskeleton is made up of three major kinds of filaments: actin filaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Each of these filaments is a polymer, meaning that it is made up of many single subunits, like a child's building blocks snapped together to form a long chain. The subunits are called monomers, and each type of cytoskeletal filament is built out of a different kind of monomer.

The polymeric structure of cytoskeletal filaments means that they can be disassembled and rearranged at any time. This means that the cell can respond to signals in its environment and rapidly change its shape, motion, or attachment accordingly. You can imagine it like this: if the buildings in a city were made out of easily rearranged monomers, it would be easy to take them down and make new buildings in different places. We usually don't need to do this, but our cells do!

In this lesson, we'll focus on one type of cytoskeletal filament, microtubules, and learn about their structure and functions within the cell.

Microtubule Structure

Microtubules are the largest cytoskeletal filaments in cells, with a diameter of 25 nanometers. They are made out of subunits called tubulin. Each tubulin subunit is made up of one alpha and one beta tubulin that are attached to each other, so technically tubulin is a heterodimer, not a monomer. As you can see, it really does look like a tube, hence the name micro'tubule.'

In a microtubule structure, tubulin monomers are linked both at their ends and along their sides (laterally). This means that microtubules are quite stable along their lengths. Imagine that you have some plastic building blocks that are all identical and can attach to each other both at their ends and laterally. If you arranged them into a microtubule structure, and then wanted to take the structure apart, you can imagine that it would be really hard to take it apart somewhere in the middle, because how would you get the first block out? If you wanted to take it apart, you'd have to start at the ends. And indeed, this is how microtubules are assembled and disassembled, only from their ends.

Plus and Minus Ends

Since the tubulin subunits are always linked in the same direction, microtubules have two distinct ends, called the plus (+) and minus (-) ends. On the minus end, alpha tubulin is exposed, and on the plus end, beta tubulin is exposed.

Microtubules preferentially assemble and disassemble at their plus ends. An important consequence of this fact is that microtubule minus ends can be clustered together in a so-called microtubule-organizing center, or centrosome. The centrosome stays stable as the plus ends of the microtubules grow and shrink.

Microtubules are used in many important cellular functions.

Separation of Sister Chromatids During Division

One of those functions is helping to separate sister chromatids during cell division. In this process, each daughter cell needs to get one complete set of chromosomes. The replication and separation of chromosomes is called mitosis.

How does it work? During mitosis, there are two centrosomes, one at each end of the cell, and each with an array of microtubules stretching out from it. The replicated chromosomes, called chromatids, are lined up in pairs in the center of the cell. Microtubules bind to the centers of each one and then, all at the same time, the microtubules begin to disassemble and shrink.

The plus ends are where the disassembly occurs and the minus ends stay stable at the centrosomes. Thus, as the microtubules shrink, the chromatids are pulled apart in the directions of the two centrosomes. This neatly divides the replicated chromosomes into one set per daughter cell. Perfect!

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