Author(s): Hertzog RG
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Abstract Like cells, all mammals have a limited life span. Among cells there are a few exceptions (e.g., immortal cells), among mammals not, even if some of them live longer. Many in vitro and in vivo studies support the consensus that telomere length is strongly correlated with life span. At the somatic cellular level, long telomeres have been associated with longer life span. A different situation can be seen in immortal cells, such as cancer, germ and stem cells, where telomeres are maintained by telomerase, a specialized reverse transcriptase that is involved in synthesis of telomeres. Irrespective of telomere length, if telomerase is active, telomeres can be maintained at a sufficient length to ensure cell survival. To the contrary, telomeres shorten progressively with each cell division and when a critical telomere length (Hayflick limit) is reached, the cells undergo senescence and subsequently apoptosis. In mammals, those with the longest telomeres (e.g., mice) have the shortest life span. Furthermore, the shorter the mean telomere length, the longer the mean life span, as observed in humans (10-14 kpb) and bowhead-whales (undetermined telomere length), which have the longest mean life span among mammals. Over the past centuries, human average life span has increased. The hypothesis presented here suggests that this continual increase in the mean life span could be due to a decrease of mean telomere length over the last hundreds years. Actually, the life span is not directly influenced by length of telomeres, but rather by telomere length - dependent gene expression pattern. According to Greider, "rather than average telomere length, it is the shortest telomere length that makes the biggest difference to a cell". In the context of fast-growing global elderly population due to increase in life expectancy, it also seem to be an age related increase in cancer incidence. Nevertheless, extending healthy life span could depend on how good cells achieve, during the prenatal period and few years after birth, the equilibrium between telomere length and telomerase activity, as seen in germ cells. After all, I suggest that decrease in mean telomere length might result in, on the one hand, an increased life span and, on the other, a higher risk of tumorigenesis.
This article was published in Med Hypotheses
and referenced in Journal of Stem Cell Research & Therapy