Extensive allelic variation and ultrashort telomeres in senescent human cells

Nat Genet. 2003 Feb;33(2):203-7. doi: 10.1038/ng1084. Epub 2003 Jan 21.


By imposing a limit on the proliferative lifespan of most somatic cells, telomere erosion represents an innate mechanism for tumor suppression and may contribute to age-related disease. A detailed understanding of the pathways that link shortened telomeres to replicative senescence has been severely hindered by the inability of current methods to analyze telomere dynamics in detail. Here we describe single telomere length analysis (STELA), a PCR-based approach that accurately measures the full spectrum of telomere lengths from individual chromosomes. STELA analysis of human XpYp telomeres in fibroblasts identifies several features of telomere biology. We observe bimodal distributions of telomeres in normal fibroblasts; these distributions result from inter-allelic differences of up to 6.5 kb, indicating that unexpectedly large-scale differences in zygotic telomere length are maintained throughout development. Most telomeres shorten in a gradual fashion consistent with simple losses through end replication, and the rates of erosion are independent of allele size. Superimposed on this are occasional, more substantial changes in length, which may be the consequence of additional mutational mechanisms. Notably, some alleles show almost complete loss of TTAGGG repeats at senescence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles*
  • Cell Division
  • Cellular Senescence / physiology*
  • Chromosome Mapping*
  • Chromosomes / genetics*
  • DNA / analysis
  • DNA Primers / chemistry
  • DNA Replication
  • Fibroblasts / cytology*
  • Fibroblasts / ultrastructure
  • Genetic Variation
  • Humans
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Metaphase
  • Mutation
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Telomerase
  • Telomere / physiology
  • Telomere / ultrastructure*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • DNA Primers
  • DNA
  • Telomerase