This study was designed to analyze whether ceramide, a bioeffector of growth suppression, plays a role in the regulation of telomerase activity in A549 cells. Telomerase activity was inhibited significantly by exogenous C(6)-ceramide, but not by the biologically inactive analog dihydro-C(6)-ceramide, in a time- and dose-dependent manner, with 85% inhibition produced by 20 microm C(6)-ceramide at 24 h. Moreover, analysis of phosphatidylserine translocation from the inner to the outer plasma membrane by flow cytometry and of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase degradation by Western blotting showed that ceramide treatment (20 microm for 24 h) had no apoptotic effects. Trypan blue exclusion, [(3)H]thymidine incorporation, and cell cycle analyses, coupled with clonogenic cell survival assay on soft agar, showed that ceramide treatment with a 20 microm concentration at 24 h resulted in the cell cycle arrest of the majority of the cell population at G(0)/G(1) with no detectable cell death. These results suggest that the inhibition of telomerase by ceramide is not a consequence of cell death but is correlated with growth arrest. Next, to determine the role of endogenous ceramide in telomerase modulation, A549 cells were transiently transfected with an expression vector containing the full-length bacterial sphingomyelinase cDNA (b-SMase). The overexpression of b-SMase, but not exogenously applied purified b-SMase enzyme, resulted in significantly decreased telomerase activity compared with controls, showing that the increased endogenous ceramide is sufficient for telomerase inhibition. Moreover, treatment of A549 cells with daunorubicin at 1 microm for 6 h resulted in the inhibition of telomerase, which correlated with the elevation of endogenous ceramide levels and growth arrest. Finally, stable overexpression of human glucosylceramide synthase, which attenuates ceramide levels by converting ceramide to glucosylceramide, prevented the inhibitory effects of C(6)-ceramide and daunorubicin on telomerase. Therefore, these results provide novel data showing for the first time that ceramide is a candidate upstream regulator of telomerase.