In the present study, we analyzed both telomere length and telomerase activity in surgical and autopsy samples of non-neoplastic mucosa and carcinomas of the stomach. Telomere length, determined by Southern blot analysis, demonstrated progressive shortening with age in non-neoplastic gastric mucosal specimens from 38 human subjects aged between 0 and 99 years, with an average annual loss rate of 46 base pairs (bp). The mean (+/- SD) telomere length in 21 gastric carcinomas was 7.0 +/- 1.6 x 10(3) base pairs (1.6 kbp). In 20 (95%) of the 21 subjects, the values were smaller than those in the nonneoplastic gastric mucosa (mean shortening 1.8 kbp), although a strong correlation was observed for the paired data (r = 0.69, P = 0.0004). Similarly, telomere lengths in carcinomas were shorter than those for intestinal metaplasia (a mean difference of 1.1 kbp). Telomerase activity, estimated using the telomeric repeat amplification protocol assay, was positive in 18 (86%) of the 21 gastric carcinomas, without significant differences among the three histological types (well, moderately, and poorly differentiated adenocarcinomas) or with sex or age. The results suggest that telomere length and possibly shortening rates vary with the individual, and that examination of both non-neoplastic mucosa and tumors is necessary to improve our understanding of the significance of telomerase in neoplasia.