As their name implies, microtubules are small hollow tubes. The walls of the microtubule are made of polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin, two globular proteins (Figure 1). With a diameter of about 25 nm, microtubules are the widest components of the cytoskeleton. They help the cell resist compression, provide a track along which vesicles move through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. Like microfilaments, microtubules can dissolve and reform quickly.

The left part of this figure is a molecular model of 13 polymerized dimers of alpha- and beta-tubulin joined together to form a hollow tube. The right part of this image shows the tubulin structure as a ring of spheres connected together.

Figure 1. Microtubules are hollow. Their walls consist of 13 polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin (right image). The left image shows the molecular structure of the tube.

Microtubules are also the structural elements of flagella, cilia, and centrioles (the latter are the two perpendicular bodies of the centrosome). In fact, in animal cells, the centrosome is the microtubule-organizing center. In eukaryotic cells, flagella and cilia are quite different structurally from their counterparts in prokaryotes, as discussed below.

Flagella and Cilia

This transmission electron micrograph shows a cross section of nine microtubule doublets that form a hollow tube. Another microtubule doublet sits in the center of the tube.

Figure 2. This transmission electron micrograph of two flagella shows the 9 + 2 array of microtubules (credit: modification of work by Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

To refresh your memory, flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell (for example, sperm, Euglena). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, many of them extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecia) or substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that trap particulate matter and move it toward your nostrils.)

Despite their differences in length and number, flagella and cilia share a common structural arrangement of microtubules called a “9 + 2 array.” This is an appropriate name because a single flagellum or cilium is made of a ring of nine microtubule doublets, surrounding a single microtubule doublet in the center (Figure 2).