In the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, microtubules with 15 protofilaments are a specialized feature of six touch-receptor neurons; microtubules found in other C. elegans neurons have 11 protofilaments. Mutations in the gene mec-7 result in touch-insensitive animals whose touch cells lack the 15-protofilament microtubules. We have characterized 54 mutations in the mec-7 gene. The absence of mec-7 activity results selectively in the recessive loss of touch sensitivity. Partial loss-of-function alleles result in a partial loss of touch sensitivity. Dominant mutations, which are isolated at an unusually high proportion, may encode abnormal products. We have cloned the mec-7 gene; it encodes a beta-tubulin which is 90-93% identical to vertebrate beta-tubulin. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that tubulin heterogeneity contributes to the formation of structurally and functionally distinct sets of microtubules.
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