Knowing when to stop

High resolution snapshots help to understand how a protein controls the length of the hollow tubes which give cells their shapes.

Microtubules grow by adding new globular proteins known as β- and α-tubulin (in blue and green, respectively) at one of their extremities; KLP-12 (in pink) can attach and slightly curve (arrows) this growing end by attaching to the mid-portion of the final β-tubulin. Image credit: Tuguchi, Nakano, Imasaki et al. (CC BY 4.0)

From meter-long structures that allow nerve cells to stretch across a body to miniscule ‘hairs’ required for lung cells to clear mucus, many life processes rely on cells sporting projections which have the right size for their role. Networks of hollow filaments known as microtubules shape these structures and ensure that they have the appropriate dimensions. Controlling the length of microtubules is therefore essential for organisms, yet how this process takes place is still not fully elucidated.

Previous research has shown that microtubules continue to grow when their end is straight but stop when it is curved. A family of molecular motors known as kinesin-4 participate in this process, but the exact mechanisms at play remain unclear.

To investigate, Tuguchi, Nakano, Imasaki et al. focused on the KLP-12 protein, a kinesin-4 equivalent which helps to controls the length of microtubules in the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans. They performed genetic manipulations and imaged the interactions between KLP-12 and the growing end of a microtubule using X-ray crystallography. This revealed that KLP-12 controls the length of neurons by inhibiting microtubule growth. It does so by modulating the curvature of the growing end of the filament to suppress its extension. A ‘snapshot’ of KLP-12 binding to a microtubule at the resolution of the atom revealed exactly how the protein helps to bend the end of the filament to prevent it from growing further.

These results will help to understand how nerve cells are shaped. This may also provide insights into the molecular mechanisms for various neurodegenerative disorders caused by problems with the human equivalents of KLP-12, potentially leading to new therapies.