Inhibition of mitosis by many drugs that bind to tubulin has been attributed to depolymerization of microtubules. However, we found previously that low concentrations of vinblastine and vincristine blocked mitosis in HeLa cells with little or no depolymerization of spindle microtubules, and spindles appeared morphologically normal or nearly normal. In the present study, we characterized the effects of vinblastine, podophyllotoxin and nocodazole over broad concentration ranges on mitotic spindle organization in HeLa cells. These three drugs are known to affect the dynamics of microtubule polymerization in vitro and to depolymerize microtubules in cells. We wanted to probe further whether mitotic inhibition by these drugs is brought about by a more subtle effect on the microtubules than net microtubule depolymerization. We compared the effects of vinblastine, podophyllotoxin and nocodazole on the organization of spindle microtubules, chromosomes and centrosomes, and on the total mass of microtubules. Spindle organization was examined by immunofluorescence microscopy, and microtubule polymer mass was assayed on isolated cytoskeletons by a quantitative enzyme-linked immunoadsorbence assay for tubulin. As the drug concentration was increased, the organization of mitotic spindles changed in the same way with all three drugs. The changes were associated with mitotic arrest, but were not necessarily accompanied by net microtubule depolymerization. With podophyllotoxin, mitotic arrest was accompanied by microtubule depolymerization. In contrast, with vinblastine and nocodazole, mitotic arrest occurred in the presence of a full complement of spindle microtubules. All three drugs induced a nearly identical rearrangement of spindle microtubules, an increasingly aberrant organization of metaphase chromosomes, and fragmentation of centrosomes. The data suggest that these anti-mitotic drugs block mitosis primarily by inhibiting the dynamics of spindle microtubules rather than by simply depolymerizing the microtubules.

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