The roles of telomeres and telomerase in cell life span.
Telomeres cap and protect the ends of chromosomes from degradation and illegitimate recombination. The termini of a linear template cannot, however, be completely replicated by conventional DNA-dependent DNA polymerases, and thus in the absence of a mechanisms to counter this effect, telomeres of eukaryotic cells shorten every round of DNA replication. In humans and possibly other higher eukaryotes, telomere shortening may have been adopted to limit the life span of somatic cells. Human somatic cells have a finite proliferative capacity and enter a viable growth arrested state called senescence. Life span appears to be governed by cell division, not time. The regular loss of telomeric DNA could therefore serve as a mitotic clock in the senescence programme, counting cell divisions. In most eukaryotic organisms, however, telomere shortening can be countered by the de novo addition of telomeric repeats by the enzyme telomerase. Cells which are "immortal' such as the human germ line or tumour cell lines, established mouse cells, yeast and ciliates, all maintain a stable telomere length through the action of telomerase. Abolition of telomerase activity in such cells nevertheless results in telomere shortening, a process that eventually destabilizes the ends of chromosomes, leading to genomic instability and cell growth arrest or death. Therefore, loss of terminal DNA sequences may limit cell life span by two mechanisms: by acting as a mitotic clock and by denuding chromosomes of protective telomeric DNA necessary for cell viability.
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