Some immortalized cell lines maintain their telomeres in the absence of detectable telomerase activity by an alternative (ALT) mechanism. To study how telomere maintenance is controlled in ALT cells, we have fused an ALT cell line GM847 (SV40 immortalized human skin fibroblasts) with normal fibroblasts or with telomerase positive immortal human cell lines and have examined their proliferative potential and telomere dynamics. The telomeres in ALT cells are characteristically very heterogeneous in length, ranging from very short to very long. The ALT x normal hybrids underwent a rapid reduction in telomeric DNA and entered a senescence-like state. Immortal segregants rapidly reverted to the ALT telomere phenotype. Fusion of ALT cells to telomerase-positive immortal cells in the same immortalization complementation group resulted in hybrids that appeared immortal and also exhibited repression of the ALT telomere phenotype. In these hybrids, which were all telomerase-positive, we observed an initial rapid loss of most long telomeres, followed either by gradual loss of the remaining long telomeres at a rate similar to the rate of telomere shortening in normal telomerase-negative cells, or by maintenance of shortened telomeres. These data indicate the existence of a mechanism of rapid telomere deletion in human cells. They also demonstrate that normal cells and at least some telomerase-positive immortal cells contain repressors of the ALT telomere phenotype.