During cell division, chromosomes must faithfully segregate to maintain genome integrity, and this dynamic mechanical process is driven by the macromolecular machinery of the mitotic spindle. However, little is known about spindle mechanics. For example, spindle microtubules are organized by numerous cross-linking proteins yet the mechanical properties of those cross-links remain unexplored. To examine the mechanical properties of microtubule cross-links we applied optical trapping to mitotic asters that form in mammalian mitotic extracts. These asters are foci of microtubules, motors, and microtubule-associated proteins that reflect many of the functional properties of spindle poles and represent centrosome-independent spindle-pole analogs. We observed bidirectional motor-driven microtubule movements, showing that microtubule linkages within asters are remarkably compliant (mean stiffness 0.025 pN/nm) and mediated by only a handful of cross-links. Depleting the motor Eg5 reduced this stiffness, indicating that Eg5 contributes to the mechanical properties of microtubule asters in a manner consistent with its localization to spindle poles in cells. We propose that compliant linkages among microtubules provide a mechanical architecture capable of accommodating microtubule movements and distributing force among microtubules without loss of pole integrity—a mechanical paradigm that may be important throughout the spindle
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