Collapse of telomere homeostasis in hematopoietic cells caused by heterozygous mutations in telomerase genes

PLoS Genet. 2012;8(5):e1002696. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002696. Epub 2012 May 17.


Telomerase activity is readily detectable in extracts from human hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, but appears unable to maintain telomere length with proliferation in vitro and with age in vivo. We performed a detailed study of the telomere length by flow FISH analysis in leukocytes from 835 healthy individuals and 60 individuals with reduced telomerase activity. Healthy individuals showed a broad range in average telomere length in granulocytes and lymphocytes at any given age. The average telomere length declined with age at a rate that differed between age-specific breakpoints and between cell types. Gender differences between leukocyte telomere lengths were observed for all cell subsets studied; interestingly, this trend could already be detected at birth. Heterozygous carriers for mutations in either the telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) or the telomerase RNA template (hTERC) gene displayed striking and comparable telomere length deficits. Further, non-carrier relatives of such heterozygous individuals had somewhat shorter leukocyte telomere lengths than expected; this difference was most profound for granulocytes. Failure to maintain telomere homeostasis as a result of partial telomerase deficiency is thought to trigger cell senescence or cell death, eventually causing tissue failure syndromes. Our data are consistent with these statements and suggest that the likelihood of similar processes occurring in normal individuals increases with age. Our work highlights the essential role of telomerase in the hematopoietic system and supports the notion that telomerase levels in hematopoietic cells, while limiting and unable to prevent overall telomere shortening, are nevertheless crucial to maintain telomere homeostasis with age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging*
  • Cell Death / genetics
  • Cellular Senescence / genetics
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Granulocytes / cytology
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cells* / cytology
  • Heterozygote
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Lymphocytes / cytology
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation*
  • RNA / genetics*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Telomerase / genetics*
  • Telomere / genetics
  • Telomere Homeostasis* / genetics
  • Young Adult


  • telomerase RNA
  • RNA
  • TERT protein, human
  • Telomerase