We have studied the microtubule-dependent formation of tubular membrane networks in vitro, using a heterologous system composed of Xenopus egg cytosol combined with rat liver membrane fractions enriched in either Golgi stacks or rough endoplasmic reticulum. The first step in membrane network construction involves the extension of membrane tubules along microtubules by the action of microtubule-based motor proteins. We have observed for both membrane fractions that 80–95% of moving tubule tips possess a distinct globular domain. These structures do not form simply as a consequence of motor protein activity, but are stable domains that appear to be enriched in active microtubule motors. Negative stain electron microscopy reveals that the motile globular domains associated with the RER networks are generally smaller than those observed in networks derived from a crude Golgi stack fraction. The globular domains from the Golgi fraction are often packed with very low density lipoprotein particles (the major secretory product of hepatocytes) and albumin, which suggests that motor proteins may be specifically enriched in organelle regions where proteins for export are accumulated. These data raise the possibility that the concentration of active motor proteins into specialised membrane domains may be an important feature of the secretory pathway.

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