Purified tubulin solutions stabilized and augmented the birefringence (BR) of isolated Chaetopterus spindles. Tubulin was extracted from pig brain tissue in cold PEG buffer (0.1 M piperazine-N-N'-bis[2-ethane sulfonic acid], 1 mM ethylene bis-[oxyethylenenitrilo]tetraacetate, [EGTA], 2.5 mM guanosine triphosphate, [GTP], pH 6.94, at 25 degrees C), and purified by two cycles of a reversible, temperature-dependent assembly-disassembly procedure. The spindle BR of the meiotic metaphase-arrested oocytes of Chaetopterus decreased linearly at a rate of 1.5 nm/min when perfused with PEG buffer without tubulin. In this hypotonic, calcium-chelating solution, the cell lysed within 1.5 min, and after a brief, transient rise, the BR disappeared in ca. 4 min from the time of buffer application. Cells perfused with tubulin in PEG buffer also showed BR decay at the same rate until cell lysis. Immediately upon cell lysis the spindle BR increased, initially at ca. 2.3 nm/min and then more slowly until the BR attained or exceeded intact cell values. Spindle and asters grew considerably larger than those in intact cells. From the kinetics of the transient BR increase after lysis, we infer that, initially, Chaetopterus cytoplasmic tubulin contributes to increased BR; further augmentation required added pig brain tubulin and most probably reflects the addition and incorporation of heterologous porcine tubulin into the spindle and asters. Isolated, augmented spindles depolymerized rapidly at 6 degrees C. Upon return to 23 degrees C, spindle BR returned slowly in tubulin-PEG. The BR of the isolates also decayed in solutions containing calcium ions 2.5 mM in excess of the EGTA. However, the isolates did not respond, or responded very slowly, to 1 mM colchicine or Colcemid and to dilution of tubulin with PEG solution. Microinjection into Chaetopterus oocytes of tubulin-PEG, but not PEG alone, enhanced spindle and aster BR which reversibly disappeared upon chilling the cell.