Chromosomes, DNA & Telomeres
To get to grips with telomeres, it is necessary to understand what chromosomes and DNA are, and what they do. Some of you may recall high school biology classes, where you would have learned about the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, who first described the structure of the DNA molecule in an article published in 1953. For those who didn’t study biology, or whose memory is a little rusty, lets run through the basics of chromosomes and DNA.
If you looked under a powerful microscope at a human body cell, you would see a nucleus, and inside this nucleus, chromosomes. Each human body cell has 46 of these chromosomes (excluding sex cells which have 23) and chromosomes are made up of DNA – a molecule which carries genetic information(genes) which tells the cell what to do. DNA replicates and copies itself to pass information on from one generation to the next.
What you probably didn’t learn in high school is that each chromosome is tipped with what is known as a telomere. The presence of telomeres was something that confounded scientists for many years. Made from repetitive sequences which seemed to be meaningless in terms of passing on genetic information, telomeres are not without function.
What Do Telomeres Do?
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, for their research into the telomere that proved the purpose of this area of DNA once and for all. The studies showed that telomeres acted like a type of seal, which prevents the chromosome from becoming damaged when DNA replicates (for new cell growth etc.) If telomeres were not present on the chromosomes, the chromosome ends could stick together, causing disease. As telomeres carry out their function in the cells and our bodies age, the telomeres become shorter.
Why Is It Important To Protect Telomeres?
Studies by geneticists at the University of Utah have found that individuals with short telomere length tend to have shorter life spans and are at greater risk of contracting heart disease and certain cancers. This poses an interesting question – could our telomeres be artificially lengthened so that we live for ever? From a scientific point of view, it is still in the early days and many more hours of research will have to be invested before we have the definitive answers to that question!
However, the links between telomeres and aging are clear and learning to protect telomeres is important if you want to experience the best of health and well-being. By living a balanced lifestyle, staying active and ensuring that your body gets all the nutrients you need, you can protect your telomere length and move forward to enjoy a youthful and healthy future.