Telomerase: The Miracle Enzyme Controlling How Fast you Age

By on June 18, 2012

By James Huxtable –

Even if you’re not interested in biology, you’ll probably want to know that the human body contains an enzyme which has the potential to keep you alive and control how fast you age. This enzyme is known as telomerase; its primary responsibility is to repair the fraying ends of your DNA, which is the genetic code that commands your cells to create you as an individual. Let’s take a closer look at this remarkable enzyme and see why science is close to determining how to keep it running indefinitely.

An Introduction to Telomeres and Telomerase

It was as recent as the 1970s that the role of telomeres was discovered. Telomeres consist of simple, repeated DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes, protecting more vital information from deletion or from simply wearing out. When DNA is duplicated, the duplication cannot continue all the way to the end of each chromosome; therefore, every time a cell divides a small amount of information at the ends of chromosomes is lost. So long as the telomeres are there as a buffer the cell line can continue, but without telomeres, the cells would quickly break down due to malfunctioning DNA.

Telomeres work something like a built in clock, counting down replications until cells cease dividing and die. This clock is called the Hayflick limit, which is how many times a cell population can divide before it reaches the end of its lifespan. Due to the way that telomeres extend the time before reaching the Hayflick limit, many scientists theorize that longer telomere sequences could greatly extend human life. Experiments using mice with extended telomeres resulted in signs of aging actually reversing.

Shortly after telomeres were discovered, it was theorized that some mechanism had to be in place to slow their loss. In the 1980s, the existence of the enzyme telomerase and its role in cellular replication was discovered. Telomerase is responsible for adding copied information to the ends of chromosomes, helping telomeres to repeat and halt their destruction. In the presence of telomerase, the Hayflick limit is not reached.

Telomerase’s Role in Anti-Aging

The two molecules that make up telomerase work together to create single-stranded DNA using single-stranded RNA as a template. Embryonic stem cells express telomerase at high levels, so that they can replicate repeatedly without damage. The enzyme is still present in adults, but is primarily found in cells that have a high turnover rate, such as in the immune system. In the rest of the body, it’s expressed at a much lower rate.

Studies have found that stress levels have a measurable impact on the production of telomerase and the activity of the enzyme. One study found that within one hour of significant stress ending, telomerase activity had raised in test subjects by 18 percent. Similarly, stressed mothers caring for sick children were found to have shortened telomeres.

So long as telomerase is present, the lost bit of DNA from each cell division can be replaced, so that every cell is able to continue dividing without the loss of information. By not losing any information, individual cells are protected from death as a result of cellular aging.

What Telomerase Therapy Could Do

The role of telomerase in the body is slowly coming to light. Understanding it better and developing drugs to control production of the enzyme may not only give us the ability to reverse aging, but also fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other health problems.

During the experiments with mice, a drug was used that triggered telomerase production. As production of the enzyme increased, tissue degeneration was reversed. Outside of the laboratory, it was found that Ashkenazi Jews with the longest lifespans carried a hyperactive version of telomerase.

There is a great deal to be discovered about the role of telomerase in the body and in aging. The potential health benefits from unraveling its mysteries and developing therapies to influence it are remarkable.

 

James Huxtable is a researcher in the burgeoning field of telomere lengthening, which may end up being the future of human medicine. Look for more of his articles about telomerase and telomere therapy at other blogs like this one across the web.

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Telomerase: The Miracle Enzyme Controlling How Fast you Age