Previous work from this laboratory has indicated that very low concentrations of vinblastine block HeLa cells at mitosis in the presence of a full complement of microtubules and without major disruption of spindle organization. In the present study we analyzed the structural organization of mitotic spindle microtubules, chromosomes and centrosomes by electron microscopy after incubating HeLa cells for one cell cycle with 2 nM vinblastine. We found that mitotic block of HeLa cells by vinblastine was associated with alterations of the fine structure of the spindle that were subtle but profound in their apparent consequences. The cell cycle was blocked in a stage that resembled prometaphase or metaphase; chromosomes had not undergone anaphase segregation. Neither the structure of the microtubules nor the structure of the kinetochores was detectably altered by the drug. However, the number of microtubules attached to kinetochores was decreased significantly. In addition, the centrosomes were altered; the normal close association of mother and daughter centriole was lost, numerous membranous vesicles were found in the centrosomal region, and many centrioles exhibited abnormal ultrastructure and had microtubules coursing through their interiors. These findings are consistent with our previous results and indicate that inhibition of the polymerization dynamics of mitotic spindle microtubules and perhaps of centriole microtubules, rather than microtubule depolymerization, is responsible for the mitotic inhibition by vinblastine.

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