The natural history of telomeres: tools for aging animals and exploring the aging process

Exp Gerontol. 2003 Jul;38(7):791-5. doi: 10.1016/s0531-5565(03)00110-4.


We have been exploring the use of telomere length as a technique to age animals. If telomere restriction fragments (TRFs) shorten predictably with age in a particular tissue, then measurement of TRFs will allow estimation of ages of animals when age cannot be measured directly. This would be particularly useful in population studies where tissue samples can be collected, but age of individuals or age structure of the population is otherwise unknown. We have demonstrated that rate of change in length of TRFs from blood cells can be used to estimate age in a number of avian species. Calibration of this telomere 'clock' using known-age individuals has led to new questions regarding the importance of TRF shortening in aging and its evolution in animals with differing life spans. Our current data show a tight correlation between telomere rate of change (TROC) and maximum life span in birds, with the longest living species having the slowest TROC. In contrast, absolute length of TRFs is not correlated with maximum life span. Very long-lived Leach's storm-petrels have telomeres that in fact lengthen with age! These data suggest that in the longest-lived organisms, cellular replicative life span may not be constrained by shortening telomeres. Published data show that TRFs shorten more slowly in long-lived mammals than in short-lived ones, although for birds and mammals of similar life span, telomere shortening is faster in mammals than in birds. This corresponds with the relatively greater longevity in birds than in mammals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology
  • Erythrocytes / physiology
  • Longevity / physiology
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Telomere / ultrastructure*
  • Vertebrates / physiology*