A telomere is a region of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration.
Russian theorist Alexei Olovnikov was the first to recognize (1971) the problem of how chromosomes could replicate right to the tip, as such was impossible with replication in a 5' to 3' direction. To solve this and to accommodate Leonard Hayflick's idea of limited somatic cell division, Olovnikov suggested that DNA sequences would be lost in every replicative phase until they reached a critical level, at which point cell division would stop.
During cell division, enzymes that duplicate the chromosome and its DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of the chromosome.
If cells divided without telomeres, they would lose the ends of their chromosomes, and the necessary information they contain. (In 1972, James Watson named this phenomenon the "end replication problem".)
The telomeres are disposable buffers blocking the ends of the chromosomes and are consumed during cell division and replenished by an enzyme, the telomerase reverse transcriptase.
They have been likened to the aglets (tips) on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from fraying.
In 1975–1977, Blackburn, working as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University with Joseph Gall, discovered the unusual nature of telomeres, with their simple repeated DNA sequences composing chromosome ends. Their work was published in 1978.
The telomere shortening mechanism normally limits cells to a fixed number of divisions, and animal studies suggest that this is responsible for aging on the cellular level and sets a limit on lifespans.
Telomeres protect a cell's chromosomes from fusing with each other or rearranging—abnormalities which can lead to cancer—and so cells are normally destroyed when their telomeres are consumed. Most cancers are the result of "immortal" cells which have ways of evading this programmed destruction.
Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.
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