Analysis of Different Methodological Approaches to Measuring Microtubule Length in the Cytoplasm of Cultured Cells

Research paper by O. A. Chernobelskaya, I. S. Grigoriev, I. B. Alieva, I. A. Vorobjev

Indexed on: 01 Jan '01Published on: 01 Jan '01Published in: Russian Journal of Developmental Biology


It is generally assumed that microtubules in tissue culture cells extend from the centrosome to cell periphery, and the length of individual microtubules averages several dozens of microns. However, direct electron-microscopic measurements have cast some doubt on this assumption. In this study, the average length of microtubules in cultured Vero cells was estimated using a combined approach. The length of free cytoplasmic and centrosomal microtubules was determined by means of electron microscopy in serial sections; concurrently, the length of free microtubules in the lamella was measured in preparations stained with tubulin antibodies (an indirect immunofluorescent method), by tracing saltatory particle movements along the microtubules in living cells. According to the data of immunofluorescent microscopy, microtubule length in the lamella averaged 4.57 ± 3.69 μm. However, since two or more microtubules can overlap, their length may be slightly overestimated by this method. On the other hand, saltatory movements are easy to monitor and measure fairly accurately, but their range may be shorter than the actual microtubule length because of a limited processiveness of motors (kinesin and dynein). On average, the trajectories of saltatory movements in living cells were 3.85 ± 0.72 μm long. At the electron-microscopic level, microtubule length was analyzed using pseudo-three-dimensional reconstructions of the microtubule systems around the centrosome and in the lamella. The length of free microtubules in the lamella reached 18 μm, averaging 3.33 ± 2.43 μm; the average length of centrosomal microtubules was 1.49 ± 0.82 μm. Good correspondence between the data on microtubule length and arrangement obtained by different methods allows the conclusion that most of the free microtubules in Vero cells actually have a length of 2–5 μm; i.e., they are much shorter than the cell radius (about 25 μm). Microtubules extending from the centrosome are shorter still and do not reach the cell periphery. Thus, most microtubules in the lamella of Vero cells are free and their ordered arrangement is not associated with their attachment to the centrosome.