Higher-order assembly of microtubules by counterions: From hexagonal bundles to living necklaces

Daniel J. Needleman, Miguel A. Ojeda-Lopez, Uri Raviv, Herbert P. Miller, Leslie Wilson, Cyrus R. Safinya*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

161 Scopus citations


Cellular factors tightly regulate the architecture of bundles of filamentous cytoskeletal proteins, giving rise to assemblies with distinct morphologies and physical properties, and a similar control of the supramolecular organization of nanotubes and nanorods in synthetic materials is highly desirable. However, it is unknown what principles determine how macromolecular interactions lead to assemblies with defined morphologies. In particular, electrostatic interactions between highly charged polyelectrolytes, which are ubiquitous in biological and synthetic self-assembled structures, are poorly understood. We have used a model system consisting of microtubules (MTs) and multivalent cations to examine how microscopic interactions can give rise to distinct bundle phases in biological polyelectrolytes. The structure of these supramolecular assemblies was elucidated on length scales from subnanometer to micrometer with synchrotron x-ray diffraction, transmission electron microscopy, and differential interference contrast microscopy. Tightly packed hexagonal bundles with controllable diameters were observed for large trivalent, tetravalent, and pentavalent counterions. Unexpectedly, in the presence of small divalent cations, we have discovered a living necklace bundle phase, comprised of 2D dynamic assemblies of MTs with linear, branched, and loop topologies. This new bundle phase is an experimental example of nematic membranes. The morphologically distinct MT assemblies give insight into general features of bundle formation and may be used as templates for miniaturized materials with applications in nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)16099-16103
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
StatePublished - 16 Nov 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Cation
  • Like-charge attraction
  • X-ray


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