Paternal and grandpaternal ages at conception and descendant telomere lengths in chimpanzees and humans

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2017 Feb;162(2):201-207. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23109. Epub 2016 Oct 12.


Telomeres are repeating DNA at chromosome ends. Telomere length (TL) declines with age in most human tissues, and shorter TL is thought to accelerate senescence. In contrast, older men have sperm with longer TL; correspondingly, older paternal age at conception (PAC) predicts longer TL in offspring. This PAC-effect could be a unique form of transgenerational genetic plasticity that modifies somatic maintenance in response to cues of recent ancestral experience. The PAC-effect has not been examined in any non-human mammals.

Objectives: Here, we examine the PAC-effect in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). The PAC-effect on TL is thought to be driven by continual production of sperm-the same process that drives increased de novo mutations with PAC. As chimpanzees have both greater sperm production and greater sperm mutation rates with PAC than humans, we predict that the PAC-effect on TL will be more pronounced in chimpanzees. Additionally we examine whether PAC predicts TL of grandchildren.

Materials and methods: TL were measured using qPCR from DNA from blood samples from 40 captive chimpanzees and 144 humans.

Results: Analyses showed increasing TL with PAC in chimpanzees (p = .009) with a slope six times that in humans (p = .026). No associations between TL and grandpaternal ages were found in humans or chimpanzees-although statistical power was low.

Discussion: These results suggest that sperm production rates across species may be a determinant of the PAC-effect on offspring TL. This raises the possibility that sperm production rates within species may influence the TL passed on to offspring.

Keywords: adaptive intergenerational plasticity; aging; epigenetics; evolution; life history.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Biological Evolution
  • Epigenomics
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Pan troglodytes / genetics*
  • Paternal Age*
  • Telomere / chemistry*
  • Telomere / genetics*
  • Young Adult