Cysteine residues in tubulin are actively involved in regulating ligand interactions and microtubule formation both in vivo and in vitro. These cysteine residues are sensitive reporters in determining the conformation of tubulin. Although some of the cysteines are critical in modulating drug binding and microtubule assembly, it is not clear how many of these normally exist as disulfides. The controversy regarding the disulfide bonds led us to develop a disulfide detection assay to reexamine the presence of the disulfide linkages in purified αβ tubulin and explore their possible biological functions in vitro. The accessible cysteine residues in αβ tubulin were alkylated with an excess of iodoacetamide to prevent artifactual generation of disulfide linkages in tubulin. After removal of excess iodoacetamide, tubulin was unfolded in 8 M urea. Half of the unfolded tubulin was treated with dithiothreitol to reduce any disulfide bonds present. The aliquots were then treated with iodo[14C]acetamide and the incorporation of radioactivity was measured. We also used the same approach to detect the disulfide linkages in the tubulin in a whole-cell extract. We found in both cases that the samples which were not treated with dithiothreitol had little or no incorporation of iodo[14C]acetamide, while the others that were treated with dithiothreitol had significant amounts of 14C incorporation into tubulin. Moreover, the reduction of the disulfide linkages in tubulin resulted in inhibition of microtubule assembly (29-54%) and markedly affected refolding of the tubulin from both an intermediate and a completely unfolded state. All these data therefore suggest that tubulin has intrachain disulfide bonds in the α- and β-subunits and that these disulfides assist in correct refolding of tubulin from the intermediate unfolded state or help to recover the hydrophobic domains from the completely unfolded state. These disulfides also regulate microtubule assembly and the stability of tubulin in vitro. Our results suggest that tubulin disulfides may play a role in tubulin folding and that thiol - disulfide exchange in tubulin could be a key regulator in microtubule assembly and dynamics of tubulin in vivo.
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