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Dynactin is a multi-subunit complex which has been implicated in cytoplasmic dynein function, though its mechanism of action is unknown. In this study, we have characterized the 50-kD subunit of dynactin, and analyzed the effects of its overexpression on mitosis in living cells. Rat and human cDNA clones revealed p50 to be novel and highly conserved, containing three predicted coiled-coil domains. Immunofluorescence staining of dynactin and cytoplasmic dynein components in cultured vertebrate cells showed that both complexes are recruited to kinetochores during prometaphase, and concentrate near spindle poles thereafter. Overexpression of p50 in COS-7 cells disrupted mitosis, causing cells to accumulate in a prometaphase-like state. Chromosomes were condensed but unaligned, and spindles, while still bipolar, were dramatically distorted. Sedimentation analysis revealed the dynactin complex to be dissociated in the transfected cultures. Furthermore, both dynactin and cytoplasmic dynein staining at prometaphase kinetochores was markedly diminished in cells expressing high levels of p50. These findings represent clear evidence for dynactin and cytoplasmic dynein codistribution within cells, and for the presence of dynactin at kinetochores. The data also provide direct in vivo evidence for a role for vertebrate dynactin in modulating cytoplasmic dynein binding to an organelle, and implicate both dynactin and dynein in chromosome alignment and spindle organization.