The MAP2/Tau family of microtubule-associated proteins
© BioMed Central Ltd 2004
Published: 23 December 2004
Skip to main content
© BioMed Central Ltd 2004
Published: 23 December 2004
Microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) of the MAP2/Tau family include the vertebrate proteins MAP2, MAP4, and Tau and homologs in other animals. All three vertebrate members of the family have alternative splice forms; all isoforms share a conserved carboxy-terminal domain containing microtubule-binding repeats, and an amino-terminal projection domain of varying size. MAP2 and Tau are found in neurons, whereas MAP4 is present in many other tissues but is generally absent from neurons. Members of the family are best known for their microtubule-stabilizing activity and for proposed roles regulating microtubule networks in the axons and dendrites of neurons. Contrary to this simple, traditional view, accumulating evidence suggests a much broader range of functions, such as binding to filamentous (F) actin, recruitment of signaling proteins, and regulation of microtubule-mediated transport. Tau is also implicated in Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. The ability of MAP2 to interact with both microtubules and F-actin might be critical for neuromorphogenic processes, such as neurite initiation, during which networks of microtubules and F-actin are reorganized in a coordinated manner. Various upstream kinases and interacting proteins have been identified that regulate the microtubule-stabilizing activity of MAP2/Tau family proteins.
Properties of human MAP2/Tau family genes
Number of microtubule-binding repeats
Alternatively spliced exons
Isoform 1 (MAP2b)
+9, +10, +11, -16
Isoform 2 (MAP2c)
-9, -10, -11, -16
+9, +10, +11, +16
Isoform 4 (MAP2d)
-9, -10, -11, +16
+8, +9, +10, +11, (16?)
Isoform 1 (HMW-tau)
+2, +3, +4A, +6, +10
Isoform 2 (tau 4R/2N)
+2, +3, -4A, -6, +10
Isoform 3 (tau 4R/0N)
-2, -3, -4A, -6, +10
Isoform 4 (tau 3R/0N)
-2, -3, -4A, -6, -10
MAP2/Tau family members are natively unfolded molecules and, like other proteins in this class, are thought to adopt specific conformations upon binding to their targets (microtubules, F-actin and potentially other molecules) . Most regions of MAP2/Tau proteins seem to be devoid of secondary structure. The only region of MAP2 that appears to form a secondary structure is an amino-terminal domain (residues 86-5103), which is found in all isoforms and interacts with the regulatory subunit of protein kinase A (PKA). Like the related domain in the A-kinase anchoring protein AKAP79/150, this region is predicted to form an amphipathic helix .
MAP2 also can interact directly with F-actin ; interestingly, the F-actin-binding site is located within the domain containing the microtubule-binding repeats. Although the MAP2 repeat region is highly similar to that of Tau, neither wild-type Tau nor MAP2 chimeras containing the Tau microtubule-binding repeats can bind to F-actin directly. However, F-actin binding is conferred on Tau if its microtubule-binding domain is exchanged for the corresponding region of MAP2 .
Mammalian MAP2 is expressed mainly in neurons, but MAP2 immunoreactivity is also detected in some non-neuronal cells such as oligodendrocytes. Its expression is very weak in neuronal precursors and then becomes strong about 1 day after expression of neuron-specific tubulin isoform βIII . MAP2c is the juvenile isoform and is downregulated after the early stages of neuronal development , whereas MAP2b is expressed both during development and adulthood. MAP2a becomes expressed when MAP2c levels are falling and is not detected uniformly in all mature neurons . In the brain, smaller splice forms of Tau (of 50-565 kDa) are differentially expressed during early development. Specifically, Tau isoforms with three microtubule-binding repeats are predominantly expressed during early development, whereas isoforms with four repeats are expressed during adulthood [20, 21]. High-molecular-weight variants of Tau (110-5120 kDa) are expressed in peripheral neurons and also at a much lower level in the brain . MAP4 is expressed in various organs, including brain, adrenal gland, lung and liver , but it is not ubiquitously expressed: in the brain, for example, MAP4 is expressed only in non-neuronal cells and is absent from neurons .
MAP2/Tau family proteins were originally discovered for and characterized by their ability to bind and stabilize microtubules. Ultrastructural analyses revealed the presence of these MAPs along the sides of microtubules [29–31]. MAP2 and Tau also increase microtubule rigidity  and induce microtubule bundles in heterologous cell systems [33–35]. Microtubule bundle formation induced by MAP2 was suggested to be an indirect effect of its stabilization of microtubules within the confinement of cell borders , but more recent results suggest that MAP2-induced bundles can form even within the interior of the cell , indicating the existence of crosslinks. Evidence for direct crosslinking of microtubules by MAP2/Tau family proteins is lacking, leaving open the possibility that additional proteins are necessary.
As described above, MAP2 can bind both microtubules and F-actin, and both activities have been mapped to its microtubule-binding-repeat domain. It is not yet known whether a single molecule can crosslink an actin filament to a microtubule. MAP2 can bundle actin filaments in vitro . MAP2c by itself can induce neurites in Neuro-2a neuroblastoma cells; its microtubule-stabilizing activity is necessary for this effect but is not sufficient, and F-actin dynamics also need to be altered . MAP2's ability to interact with F-actin appears to be key to this specific biological function. Unlike MAP2C, neither Tau nor chimeric MAP2C containing the Tau microtubule-binding domain can trigger neurite initiation, an observation that correlates with their lack of F-actin binding in vitro . This suggests that MAP2c's ability to interact with both microtubules and F-actin is essential for its neurite-initiation activity.
Knockout experiments in mice suggest that neither MAP2 nor Tau is essential by itself, but each single knockout leads to detectable morphological phenotypes. Tau expression was undetectable after targeted deletion of the first Tau exon, which includes the protein start codon . Homozygous animals showed no major defects in brain morphology, but the microtubule density in small-caliber axons was reduced. Similarly, MAP2 expression was undetectable after deletion of one exon encoding a portion of the MAP2 microtubule-binding domain . Again, homozygous animals showed no major defects in brain morphology, but microtubule density in dendrites was reduced. In addition, dendrite length in cultured neurons was reduced, suggesting a role for MAP2 in supporting dendrite elongation.
The phenotypes of single knockouts suggest specific but nonessential roles for Tau and MAP2 in the morphogenesis of the nervous system. However, these proteins probably have multiple roles in other pathways and can be compensated for by other proteins with redundant functions. Interestingly, the structurally unrelated microtubule-associated protein MAP1B appears to have some redundant roles with both Tau [41, 42] and MAP2 . Simultaneous inhibition of either MAP1B and Tau or MAP1B and MAP2 resulted in more severe phenotypes than those seen in single knockouts. Taken together, these experiments suggest a role for Tau, MAP2 and MAP1B in both neuronal migration and outgrowth of neurites. Redundancy among MAP2, Tau and MAP4 has not been adequately tested in mammalian systems. It is also possible that other classes of MAP such as stable tubule only protein (STOP), adenomatous polyposis coli (APC), doublecortin, or spectraplakins might provide additional redundancy with MAP functions.
Selected interaction partners of MAP2/Tau family proteins
Proposed function of the interaction
Stabilization of microtubules; inhibition of depolymerization (catastrophes); increase in microtubule rigidity, neurite initiation
Modulation of neurite initiation
Regulatory subunit RII of PKA
Localization of PKA to hippocampal dendrites; facilitation of cAMP-responsive element binding protein (CREB) phosphorylation; modulation of neurite initiation
Tyrosine kinase Src
Signal transduction and integration
Adapter protein Grb2
Signal transduction and integration
Tyrosine kinase Fyn
Signal transduction and integration
Crossbridges between microtubules and neurofilaments
Class C L-type calcium channels
Linking PKA to channels
MAP2-RNA transacting proteins MARTA1 and MARTA2
Interaction with MAP2 mRNA: targets MAP2 mRNA to dendrites
Stabilization of microtubules; inhibition of depolymerization (catastrophes); increase in microtubule rigidity
Modulation of microtubule organization; pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease
Links Tau to glycogen synthase kinase 3β; pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease
Regulation of Tau metabolism; pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease
Regulation of microtubule assembly
Calmodulin-related protein S100b
Regulation of Tau phosphorylation by protein kinase C
Stabilization of microtubules; inhibition of depolymerization (catastrophes)
Links p34cdc2 kinase to microtubules; regulation of M-phase microtubule dynamics
Tau has been studied extensively for its involvement in neurofibrillary tangle formation in Alzheimer's Disease and in frontotemporal dementias associated with chromosome 17 (FTDP-17); see several excellent discussions of Tau pathology [45–48].
The widely expressed non-neuronal member of the MAP2/Tau family, MAP4, shares many features with other members of the family, including the presence of microtubule-binding repeats  and microtubule-stabilizing activity . MAP4 has been proposed to play a role in regulating mitotic microtubule dynamics during metaphase . However, using function-blocking antibodies that interfere with the MAP4-microtubule interaction, a more recent study  failed to detect an obvious phenotype in mitosis or during interphase, suggesting that MAP4 might be a component of a functionally redundant system. Muscle-specific MAP4 isoforms have been shown to be required for myogenesis , but the exact role of MAP4 is not known in this process.
Although MAP2 is primarily neuronal, some isoforms are also present in certain astrocytes , oligodendrocytes , as well as in the testis . The testicular isoform of MAP2 contains a functional nuclear localization sequence  and is enriched in nuclei of germ cells. Like MAP2, the primarily neuronal Tau is also expressed in oligodendrocytes . Interestingly, alternative splicing of MAP2  and Tau  is similar during the maturation of oligodendrocytes and neurons. In oligodendrocytes, Tau and its regulation by the Fyn tyrosine kinase are proposed to be involved in process outgrowth .
Microtubules exhibit dynamic instability, an intrinsic behavior characterized by alternating phases of growth, shortening, and pausing. The switch from growth to shortening and the switch from shortening to growth are called catastrophes and rescues, respectively. MAP2/Tau proteins bind along the length of microtubules and stabilize microtubules by altering this dynamic behavior [31, 60, 61]. The small isoform MAP2c stabilizes microtubules primarily by reducing the frequency and duration of catastrophes . Under conditions where its concentration is non-saturating, MAP2 can also form clusters on microtubules, and microtubule catastrophes stop at such clusters . Interestingly, isoforms of Tau containing three or four microtubule-binding repeats have distinct effects on microtubule dynamics, with four-repeat isoforms protecting microtubules from depolymerization much more robustly than three-repeat isoforms . In cells, microtubules still exhibit dynamic behavior even when stabilizing MAPs are highly expressed , perhaps because their binding is regulated by phosphorylation and other factors.
A detailed cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) analysis has suggested a possible mechanism by which MAP2/Tau might reduce catastrophes and thus stabilize microtubules. This study revealed that the microtubule-binding repeats interact in an elongated fashion on the outer microtubule lattice, spanning two tubulin dimers along a single protofilament rather than bridging adjacent protofilaments . Tau appeared to show a similar pattern. Several other experiments confirm that MAP2 binds to the outside of microtubules in vivo. First, the projection domain of MAP2 can regulate microtubule spacing . In addition, an EM study that compared wild-type to knockout animals suggested that electron-dense structures on the outer surface of microtubules contain MAP2 . Another cryo-EM analysis suggested that Tau binds to the inner surface of microtubules , but the role of this binding is not yet clear. Tau might be able to bind to multiple sites, both inside and outside the microtubule lattice. This idea is consistent with the observation that Tau has different kinetic properties when bound to pre-polymerized microtubules than when co-polymerized with microtubules .
MAP2/Tau family proteins can inhibit kinesin- and dynein-dependent transport along microtubules [67–71]. Observations in vitro suggest that this inhibition of microtubule motor activity occurs by direct competition of MAP2/Tau proteins with dynein and kinesin for microtubule binding and also suggest a major role for the projection domain of the MAP2/Tau proteins in this competition [69, 71]. In cells, overexpression of Tau interferes with kinesin-based transport and alters the balance of plus-end- versus minus-end-directed transport [67, 68]. In vivo, the MAP2 and Tau projection domains appear to be involved in regulating microtubule spacing . Such control over microtubule spacing might facilitate efficient organelle transport.
Binding of MAP2/Tau family proteins to microtubules can be regulated by phosphorylation of the KXGS motif within each microtubule-binding repeat. For both MAP2 and Tau, these motifs are phosphorylated by multiple protein kinases, including PKA  and the microtubule affinity regulating kinase (MARK) , and phosphorylation leads to decreased affinity for microtubules. Recent evidence also links the Jun kinase (Jnk) pathway to phosphorylation of MAP2 . Many other protein kinases can phosphorylate MAP2/Tau proteins in vitro, but for most the identity of the targeted residues in vivo and the functional consequences of phosphorylation remain to be determined. For example, in the olfactory bulb, a site in the amino-terminal domain of MAP2 is phosphorylated in vivo in a manner that is regulated by sensory-driven neural activity; the function of this phosphorylation is not yet known, however . The regulation of MAPs, including the MAP2/Tau family, has been summarized in a comprehensive review .
Since their original identification over 20 years ago, classical structural MAPs of the MAP2/Tau family have been extensively characterized in vitro and in vivo. A major challenge for further illuminating their function is the vast number of interaction partners and protein kinases predicted and confirmed to phosphorylate MAP2/Tau proteins. Although some key pathways controlling their activity have been elucidated, a broader and more precise analysis of phosphorylation and other post-translational modifications is needed to fully understand MAP2/Tau protein function in signaling networks controlling the morphogenesis of neurons. Recent progress in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying MAP-microtubule and MAP-actin interactions in vitro is promising, but biological functions remain elusive. Future studies will need to correlate the effects of MAP2/Tau proteins in vivo with molecular knowledge gained from in vitro analyses. The apparent functional redundancies and cross-talk with other MAPs and cytoskeletal regulators are challenges that will require creative experimental strategies if we are to elucidate the specific functions of MAP2/Tau family proteins in cytoskeletal organization and morphological change.
We thank Julia Braga for preparation of the neuronal cultures shown in Figure 3. This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.