Telomeres and Telomerase
Telomeres and Telomerase

Telomeres and Telomerase

DNA is known as the blueprint of life because it replicates repeatedly in human cells to pass hereditary information from one generation to another. As cells grow and divide, our DNA is safely copied and protected by telomeres-the DNA sequences at the tips of all human chromosomes.

These cap-like structures represent but a fraction of our DNA, yet have a huge impact on the behavior of our cells as a biological clock. Telomeres shorten as we age. The question of whether short telomeres cause aging or the diseases of aging is a topic of much current research.

As early as the 1930s, Hermann Muller and Barbara McClintock observed chromosome ends, named telomeres, had special protective properties.  The word telomere derives from the Greek terms telos (end) and meros (part). For many years, it was not known how these ends function. In the 1970s, Elizabeth Blackburn identified the first telomere sequence in the laboratory of Joseph Gall at Yale University.  Since then, the field of telomere research has exploded, with Blackburn and many others literally transforming our understanding of how cells age and die. Blackburn, together with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 for their discoveries on "how chromosome ends are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."

Exciting investigations are now underway focused on telomeres as well as telomerase-the enzyme that replenishes telomeres in the cell. Telomerase is evolving into a new tool in clinical medicine. For example, this enzyme holds the promise of engineering new life into old tissue. Blocking this enzyme, on the other hand, may inhibit the growth of cancer. Other studies are exploring the potential of telomerase for a variety of purposes.

A thorough understanding of the basics of telomere biology may be helpful to the layperson not familiar with this complex topic. This can be followed by a review of the research taking place in labs all over the world. Some of the most current research is described in some detail under the What's Hot section, while older research can be found in the Archives.

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Reviewer: Woodring Wright, MD, PhD, Professor of Cell Biology, Southland Financial Corporation Distinguished Chair in Geriatric Research, University of Texas