The pointed end capping protein, tropomodulin, increases the critical concentration of barbed end capped actin, i.e. it lowers the apparent affinity of pointed ends for actin monomers. We show here that this is due to the conversion of pointed end ADP. P(i)-actin (low critical concentration) to ADP-actin (high critical concentration) when 70-98% of the ends are capped by tropomodulin. We propose that this is due to the low affinity of tropomodulin for pointed ends (K(d) approximately 0.3 microM), which allows tropomodulin to rapidly exchange binding sites and transiently block access of actin monomers to all pointed ends. This leaves time for ATP hydrolysis and phosphate release to go to completion between successive monomer additions to the pointed end. When the affinity of tropomodulin for pointed ends was increased about 1000-fold by the presence of tropomyosin (K(d) < 0.05 nM), capping of 95% of the ends by tropomodulin did not alter the critical concentration. However, the critical concentration did increase when the tropomodulin concentration was raised to the high values effective in the absence of tropomyosin. This may reflect transient tropomodulin binding to tropomyosin-free actin molecules at the pointed ends of the tropomyosin-actin filaments without a high affinity tropomodulin cap, i.e. the ends that determine the value of the actin critical concentration.