We analyzed the role of tubulin polyglycylation in Tetrahymena thermophila using in vivo mutagenesis and immunochemical analysis with modification-specific antibodies. Three and five polyglycylation sites were identified at glutamic acids near the COOH termini of alpha- and beta-tubulin, respectively. Mutants lacking all polyglycylation sites on alpha-tubulin have normal phenotype, whereas similar sites on beta-tubulin are essential. A viable mutant with three mutated sites in beta-tubulin showed reduced tubulin glycylation, slow growth and motility, and defects in cytokinesis. Cells in which all five polyglycylation sites on beta-tubulin were mutated were viable if they were cotransformed with an alpha-tubulin gene whose COOH terminus was replaced by the wild-type COOH terminus of beta-tubulin. In this double mutant, beta-tubulin lacked detectable polyglycylation, while the alpha-beta tubulin chimera was hyperglycylated compared with alpha-tubulin in wild-type cells. Thus, the essential function of polyglycylation of the COOH terminus of beta-tubulin can be transferred to alpha-tubulin, indicating it is the total amount of polyglycylation on both alpha- and beta-tubulin that is essential for survival.