Do you know about telomeres? If you’re wondering why you’d ever want to know, there’s some fascinating information that’s emerged from a ton of research on these tiny molecules.
Telomeres are structures that sit at both ends of our chromosomes. Chromosomes are in every cell in our bodies, contain our DNA, and are shaped a bit like long sausages. If you took one of those sausages and dipped both ends in mustard, that’s the telomeres: caps at the ends. Their purpose is to protect the DNA inside the sausage.
Every time the cells divide, the telomeres get a little bit shorter and a little bit less effective at protecting our DNA. To a great extent this is unavoidable, just as aging is unavoidable. However, research is uncovering details of how we can slow this process as much as possible. Then, we avoid or at the very least delay age-related disease, because it’s not the genes we inherit that makes the difference but how those genes function.
University of California researcher Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work on telomeres, which tells you that this has become a serious subject for research. ‘PubMed’ is the online library that lists every study published in medical journals, and a search on that site for ‘telomeres’ results in more than 20,000 references to research.
The measurement of telomeres has delivered a revolution in the evaluation of human health. Previously, research into aging would look at cholesterol, for example, or weight, insulin resistance or blood pressure. Measuring telomere length is a much more fundamental assessment; the condition of the cell is measured by the length of its telomeres, and the longer they are, the better.
Telomere testing could become available to the public, but that’s not the best part of this story. The big news is that this provides the gold standard for evaluating biological health and aging.