The loss of telomere repeats has been causally linked to in vitro replicative senescence of human diploid fibroblasts (HDFs). In order to study the mechanism(s) by which telomere shortening signals cell senescence, we analyzed the telomere length at specific chromosome ends at cumulative population doublings in polyclonal and clonal HDFs by quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization. The rate of telomere shortening at individual telomeres varied between 50 and 150 bp per population doubling and short telomeres with an estimated 1-2 kb of telomere repeats accumulated prior to senescence. The average telomere length in specific chromosome ends was remarkably similar between clones. However, some exceptions with individual telomeres measuring 0.5-1 kb were observed. In the fibroblast clones, the onset of replicative senescence was significantly correlated with the mean telomere fluorescence but, strikingly, not with chromosomes with the shortest telomere length. The accumulation of short telomeres in late passages of cultured HDFs is compatible with selection of cells on the basis of telomere length and limited recombination between telomeres prior to senescence.
Copyright 2000 Academic Press.