9-(Dicyanovinyl)julolidine (DCVJ) is a fluorescent dye whose intramolecular rotational relaxation is solvent dependent. Since its quantum yield increases with decreasing free volume, this molecule has been very useful in monitoring synthetic polymer reactions and measuring local microviscosity changes in phospholipid bilayers [Loutfy, R. O. (1986) Pure Appl. Chem. 58, 1239-1248; Kung, C. E., & Reed, J. K. (1986) Biochemistry 25, 6114-6121]. We have used DCVJ to follow the polymerization of tubulin, a protein that can assemble into a variety of polymorphic microstructures. DCVJ binding to free tubulin is accompanied by an increase in quantum yield, indicating that DCVJ has become partially immobilized. At 4 degrees C, DCVJ binds to a single population of high-affinity hydrophobic sites (Kd = 1.12 +/- 0.26 microM) with a stoichiometry that is protein concentration dependent. n, the number of moles of DCVJ bound per mole of alpha beta dimer, approaches 1 at concentrations less than or equal to 0.5 mg/mL but decreases to a lower limit of approximately 0.3 at concentrations greater than or equal to 2.0 mg/mL. The quantum yield also increases with increasing protein concentration. This trend is unaltered by the presence of microtubule-associated proteins. These results are analyzed in terms of a concentration-dependent oligomerization of tubulin at 4 degrees C. When tubulin is polymerized at 37 degrees C to microtubules or to sheets in the presence of Zn2+, the fluorescence intensity of DCVJ increases although the magnitude of this increase differs significantly. We are able to use the distinct fluorescent and binding characteristics of the bound dye to distinguish between these two polymorphs on a molecular level.
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