The telomeres that occur at the end of chromosomes are maintained by the activity of telomerase and are thought to be important protective factors in maintaining the integrity of chromosomes. It now appears that in vitro replicative senescence, which has been observed in cultured somatic cells, is due to a loss of telomere length in those cells, caused by inactivity of telomerase. This has led to the proposition that telomerase activity is an important determinant in organismal ageing. However, many cells in the body do not proliferate regularly and therefore will not lose telomere length. Cells that do proliferate frequently have now been shown to have active telomerase. Other cells, such as fibroblasts, that do not have telomerase activity but proliferate only occasionally may not reach the Hayflick limit during the lifetime of an animal. There is also no correlation between telomere length and the maximal lifespan exhibited by different species. Studies of telomerase knock-out mice have reported some aspects of accelerated ageing after three generations, but the relevance of these observations to normal ageing remains unconvincing. The role of telomerase in producing immortal tumour cells and the possibility that activation of telomerase is an important event in malignant transformation is similarly controversial and open to alternative interpretations. The significance of these and other observations, and how they define the role of telomerase in ageing, is discussed.