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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Dendrites differ from axons in patterns of microtubule stability and polymerization during development

Katherine M Kollins3, Robert L Bell1, Matthew Butts1 and Ginger S Withers12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Boyer Ave, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA 99362, USA

2 Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, Oregon Health and Science University, SW Sam Jackson Park Road, Portland, OR 97239, USA

3 Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Drexel University College of Medicine, Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129, USA

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Neural Development 2009, 4:26  doi:10.1186/1749-8104-4-26

Published: 14 July 2009



Dendrites differ from axons in patterns of growth and development, as well as in morphology. Given that microtubules are key structural elements in cells, we assessed patterns of microtubule stability and polymerization during hippocampal neuron development in vitro to determine if these aspects of microtubule organization could distinguish axons from dendrites.


Quantitative ratiometric immunocytochemistry identified significant differences in microtubule stability between axons and dendrites. Most notably, regardless of developmental stage, there were high levels of dynamic microtubules throughout the dendritic arbor, whereas dynamic microtubules were predominantly concentrated in the distal end of axons. Analysis of microtubule polymerization using green fluorescent protein-tagged EB1 showed both developmental and regional differences in microtubule polymerization between axons and dendrites. Early in development (for example, 1 to 2 days in vitro), polymerization events were distributed equally in both the anterograde and retrograde directions throughout the length of both axons and dendrites. As development progressed, however, polymerization became biased, with a greater number of polymerization events in distal than in proximal and middle regions. While polymerization occurred almost exclusively in the anterograde direction for axons, both anterograde and retrograde polymerization was observed in dendrites. This is in agreement with predicted differences in microtubule polarity within these compartments, although fewer retrograde events were observed in dendrites than expected.


Both immunocytochemical and live imaging analyses showed that newly formed microtubules predominated at the distal end of axons and dendrites, suggesting a common mechanism that incorporates increased microtubule polymerization at growing process tips. Dendrites had more immature, dynamic microtubules throughout the entire arbor than did axons, however. Identifying these differences in microtubule stability and polymerization is a necessary first step toward understanding how they are developmentally regulated, and may reveal novel mechanisms underlying neuron maturation and dendritic plasticity that extend beyond the initial specification of polarity.