Tubulin evolution: Two major types of α-tubulin

Melvyn Little, Richard F. Ludueña, Roy Keenan, Clara F. Asnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Tubulin subunits have been isolated from a variety of protists and marine invertebrates. The sources were: sperm tails of a tunicate (Ciona intestinalis), an abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and a sea anemone (Tealia crassicornis), the gill cilia of a clam (Mercenaria mercenaria), the cilia of a ciliate (Tetrahymena pyriformis) and the cytoplasm of a slime mold (Physarum polycephalum). All the β-tubulins, as characterised by their electropherograms after limited proteolytic cleavage with Staphylococcus aureus protease, were fairly similar. In contrast, two markedly different peptide patterns were found for the α-tubulins of (a) metazoan axonemes and (b) protistan axonemes, plant axonemes and slime mold cytoplasm. Metazoan axonemal α-tubulin peptide patterns could be further divided into two similar but distinct subtypes which did not correlate with the taxonomic divisions of deuterostomia and protostomia, or to different tubulins within an axoneme, or to different tubulins of flagella and cilia. We have postulated that these small differences may be accounted for by a simple glutamicaspartic acid exchange at a particular position in the α-tubulin sequence. Identical peptide patterns were observed for sea urchin and sea anemone sperm tail tubulins, proving that the metazoan type of axonemal tubulin arose before the divergence of bilateral and radial symmetric organisms. The close similarity of the slime mold cytoplasmic α-tubulin peptide pattern to protistan and plant axonemal α-tubulin patterns suggests that the same type of tubulin might be used to form both axonemal and cytoplasmic types of microtubules in protists and plants. The large structural constraints imposed upon this tubulin molecule probably allowed very little change in its primary structure, thus explaining the similarity of tubulins from organisms which diverged at such an early time in eukaryote history. Duplication and modification of the tubulin gene may then have led to the development of specific axonemal and cytoplasmic microtubules during the evolution of the metazoa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-86
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 1982


  • Evolution
  • Microtubules
  • Tubulin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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