Microtubules—which define the shape of axons, cilia and flagella, and provide tracks for intracellular transport—can be highly bent by intracellular forces, and microtubule structure and stiffness are thought to be affected by physical constraints. Yet how microtubules tolerate the vast forces exerted on them remains unknown. Here, by using a microfluidic device, we show that microtubule stiffness decreases incrementally with each cycle of bending and release. Similar to other cases of material fatigue, the concentration of mechanical stresses on pre-existing defects in the microtubule lattice is responsible for the generation of more extensive damage, which further decreases microtubule stiffness. Strikingly, damaged microtubules were able to incorporate new tubulin dimers into their lattice and recover their initial stiffness. Our findings demonstrate that microtubules are ductile materials with self-healing properties, that their dynamics does not exclusively occur at their ends, and that their lattice plasticity enables the microtubules’ adaptation to mechanical stresses.
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We thank D. Chrétien for interesting discussions about microtubule defects and M. Dogterom and T. Salmon for bringing to our attention the seminal work of R. Williams. This work has been supported by an HFSP funding to M.T. and M.V.N. (RGY0088/2012) and ERC funding to M.T. (Starting Grant 310472).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Schaedel, L., John, K., Gaillard, J. et al. Microtubules self-repair in response to mechanical stress. Nature Mater 14, 1156–1163 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat4396
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