BACKGROUND: The pole-to-pole distance of the metaphase spindle is reasonably constant in a given cell type; in the case of vertebrate female oocytes, this steady-state length can be maintained for substantial lengths of time, during which time microtubules remain highly dynamic. Although a number of molecular perturbations have been shown to influence spindle length, a global understanding of the factors that determine metaphase spindle length has not been achieved. RESULTS: Using the Drosophila S2 cell line, we depleted or overexpressed proteins that either generate sliding forces between spindle microtubules (Kinesin-5, Kinesin-14, dynein), promote microtubule polymerization (EB1, Mast/Orbit [CLASP], Minispindles [Dis1/XMAP215/TOG]) or depolymerization (Kinesin-8, Kinesin-13), or mediate sister-chromatid cohesion (Rad21) in order to explore how these forces influence spindle length. Using high-throughput automated microscopy and semiautomated image analyses of >4000 spindles, we found a reduction in spindle size after RNAi of microtubule-polymerizing factors or overexpression of Kinesin-8, whereas longer spindles resulted from the knockdown of Rad21, Kinesin-8, or Kinesin-13. In contrast, and differing from previous reports, bipolar spindle length is relatively insensitive to increases in motor-generated sliding forces. However, an ultrasensitive monopolar-to-bipolar transition in spindle architecture was observed at a critical concentration of the Kinesin-5 sliding motor. These observations could be explained by a quantitative model that proposes a coupling between microtubule depolymerization rates and microtubule sliding forces. CONCLUSIONS: By integrating extensive RNAi with high-throughput image-processing methodology and mathematical modeling, we reach to a conclusion that metaphase spindle length is sensitive to alterations in microtubule dynamics and sister-chromatid cohesion, but robust against alterations of microtubule sliding force.