The dynamics of microtubules in living cells can be seen by fluorescence microscopy when fluorescently labeled tubulin is microinjected into cells, mixing with the cellular tubulin pool. and incorporating into microtubules. The subsequent fluorescence distribution along microtubules can appear 'speckled' in high-resolution images obtained with a cooled CCD camera (Waterman-Storer and Salmon, 1997. J. Cell Biol. 139:417-434). In this paper we investigate the origins of these fluorescent speckles. In vivo microtubules exhibited a random pattern of speckles for different microtubules and different regions of an individual microtubule. The speckle pattern changed only after microtubule shortening and regrowth. Microtubules assembled from mixtures of labeled and unlabeled pure tubulin in vitro also exhibited fluorescent speckles, demonstrating that cellular factors or organelles do not contribute to the speckle pattern. Speckle contrast (measured as the standard deviation of fluorescence intensity along the microtubule divided by the mean fluorescence intensity) decreased as the fraction of labeled tubulin increased, and it was not altered by the binding of purified brain microtubule-associated proteins. Computer simulation of microtubule assembly with labeled and unlabeled tubulin showed that the speckle patterns can be explained solely by the stochastic nature of tubulin dimer association with a growing end. Speckle patterns can provide fiduciary marks in the microtubule lattice for motility studies or can be used to determine the fraction of labeled tubulin microinjected into living cells.
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