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Lindau Nobel Meeting–Stressed Mind, Stressed DNA

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It was an accidental mutation of the Tetrahymena thermophila (left), a pond organism, during a lab experiment that revealed that the enzyme telomerase keeps the protective caps on the end of chromosomes long. Speaking at the 61st Meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau, Elisabeth Blackburn compared the caps, called telomeres, to the tips on the end of a shoelace that prevent it from fraying. Telomeres protect DNA during cell division.

Most Tetrahymena are immortal, Blackburn explained, and they have lots of telemorase, but the mutant had shorter and shorter telomeres over time, so its cells started to die. It was found that the mutant had no telemorase in its cells.

The mystery of the function of telomeres (right) had been solved. Labs from around the world began to work on the implications of telomeres for human health.

"Many of the diseases of ageing, including cancers, are associated with the shortening of telomeres," Blackburn said. Others include: pulmonary fibrosis, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes. Even the risk factors for these diseases increases with short telomeres.

With a global aging population, the importance of tackling these chronic diseases is increasing. Diabetes is a worldwide problem, for instance, affecting 10 per cent of people in the developing and developed world.

Luckily, stopping our own telomeres from shortening – or possibly even restoring them – is potentially something within our grasp. Chronic life stress and multiple trauma exposures are implicated in telomere shortness, Blackburn said, as are pessimism and hostility. But education, excercise and stress reduction are factors in preventing telomere shortening, thereby reducing the risk of disease.

Blackburn encouraged the audience to get involved in telomere research. She said that there is so much data on telemores, including 675,000 genetic snips, that there is a lot of work yet to be done to determine how chronic diseases can be prevented.

You can watch the video of Blackburn’s fascinating talk below:

Images: Tetrahymena, from Wikimedia commons. Photos of Blackburn and of her slide of chromosomes – Christine Ottery.

About the author: Christine Ottery is a freelance science writer who writes on for the Guardian, TheEcologist.co.uk, SciDev.net and Wired magazine. She recently graduated from a MA Science Journalism at City University London, U.K. She blogs at Open Minds and Parachutes and tweets at @christineottery.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Cross-posted on the official site of the Lindau Nobel Community —the interactive home of the Lindau Meetings: Take control of your telomeres – Elizabeth Blackburn






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  1. 1. MGales 5:09 am 04/17/2012

    Interesting video. Blackburn is a very smart scientist, but to say that “education, excercise and stress reduction are factors in preventing telomere shortening” is a bit misleading. The only way you can extend telomere length is through telomerase enzyme supplementation.

    If look through the Nobele Prize press release ( http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2009/popular-medicineprize2009.pdf ), you will see this: “When Blackburn and Szostak analyzed chromosomes that had been in yeast cells for some time, they discovered that the telomeres had grown longer. Several studies confirmed that telomeres can both grow and shrink. Just as James Watson predicted, DNA molecules are truncated during cell division, but they also seem to grow longer through addition of DNA sequences.”

    DNA sequences were in that case telomerase enzyme additives. And you can actually get them online pretty cheap here: http://www.telomerance.com or you can go with a more expensive version here: http://www.tasciences.com/ta-65/

    Either way, the products already exist, the only questions is – do they work or not?

    Link to this

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