What are Telomeres?

To explain what I’m doing I’ll first explain what Telomeres are and why their length is relatively important.

Telomeres Structure and function from Kupiec, 2014

Telomeres are solving a problem that came up when bacteria became eucariots (plants, mushrooms and animals). At this point they stopped storing their genetic information on DNA-rings and instead developed linear chromosomes. This brings some structural advantages for bigger chromosomes but has a huge disadvantage. Each time a cell divides (which most cells do a lot) it has to replicate it’s genome so each daughter can have a copy. This is done by enzymes called DNA-polymerases. The process only works in one direction on the DNA-string and doesn’t start at the beginning.

For a circular genome this is no problem but for a linear genome this means the loss of a few bases (the building blocks of DNA) at each devision. For a while this is not a huge problem if you don’t write important stuff at the beginning (or end) of the chromosome. And that is already the first function of Telomeres. Aside from mechanically stabilizing the chromosome ends, they are a peace of genetic code at the ends of chromosomes that do not contain vital information.

This is already enough for many of our somatic cells (those cells in the body that form most of our body) they only divide a certain number of times until a tissue (like a muscle or your brain) is formed and then just work and do not or only rarely divide.

Only cells that need to divide unlimited or often (germ line or stem cells but also unicellular life) need another trick. This trick is called Telomerase and earned it’s discoverers a Nobel Prize. Telomerase is an enzyme complex that uses an RNA-template to elongate Telomeres and so completely solve the so called End-Replication-Problem.

The fact that most somatic cells are not using this trick and have telomerase switched off has an interesting implication. It makes Telomeres something like a cellular clock of aging. They limit the number of times a cell can divide and rejuvenate a tissue before it goes into a state called senescence. The more cells of an organ are in this state, the less likely the whole organ gets to repair itself and to function correctly.

Another type of cell that needs to replicate a lot is cancer. This is why about 4 out of 5 cancer cells have Telomerase switched on.

The full picture of the connection between Telomeres, aging and cancer are quite complicated and still under discussion but it is quite clear that influencing Telomere length has quite some potential to treat cancer on one side and influence aging on the other.

If you’re interested in a good overview on the current state of knowledge on the connection between aging and Telomeres there’s a quite new review article from Vaiserman et al., 2021.

If you want further information on Telomers and cancer I’d recommend the article of Hiyama et al., 2003 about Telomerase as tumor marker or Graham et al., 2017 about Telomeres and prostrate cancer.

For an overview on Telomeres as a target for drug discovery see the nature article of Bearss et al., 2000.


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