Predicting lifespan with telomeres
Issued: Tue, 08 May 2012 14:32:00 BST
Researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered that measuring the length of specialised pieces of DNA called telomeres in individuals gives a good indication of their expected lifespan.
Telomeres occur at the ends of chromosomes, which contain our genetic code. They function a bit like the plastic caps at the ends of shoelaces, by marking the chromosome ends and protecting them from various processes that gradually cause the ends to be worn away. The eventual loss of the telomere cap is known to cause cells to malfunction.
The Glasgow study, which is led by Professor of Animal Ecology Pat Monaghan, is the first in which telomere length has been measured in the same individuals from early life onward, repeatedly during the rest of their natural lives. The researchers measured telomere lengths in small samples of blood cells taken at various ages in a group of zebra finches. While there was a lot of variation among individuals in telomere length, those birds that lived the longest had the longest telomeres at every measurement point.
It is known that the variation in telomere length is partly inherited, but it is also influenced by environmental factors such as exposure to stress.
Professor Monaghan noted: "Our study shows the great importance of processes acting early in life. We now need to know more about how early life conditions can influence the pattern of telomere loss, and the relative importance of inherited and environmental factors. This is the main focus of our current research."
This study was funded by the European Research Council, with additional support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the US National Science Foundation.
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