Telomeres are repeating DNA found at the ends of chromosomes that, in the absence of restorative processes, shorten with cell replications and are implicated as a cause of senescence. It appears that sperm telomere length (TL) increases with age in humans, and as a result offspring of older fathers inherit longer telomeres. We review possible mechanisms underlying this paternal age at conception (PAC) effect on TL, including sperm telomere extension due to telomerase activity, age-dependent changes in the spermatogonial stem cell population (possibly driven by 'selfish' spermatogonia) and non-causal confounding. In contrast to the lengthening of TL with PAC, higher maternal age at conception appears to predict shorter offspring TL in humans. We review evidence for heterogeneity across species in the PAC effect on TL, which could relate to differences in statistical power, sperm production rates or testicular telomerase activity. Finally, we review the hypothesis that the PAC effect on TL may allow a gradual multi-generational adaptive calibration of maintenance effort, and reproductive lifespan, to local demographic conditions: descendants of males who reproduced at a later age are likely to find themselves in an environment where increased maintenance effort, allowing later reproduction, represents a fitness improving resource allocation.This article is part of the theme issue 'Understanding diversity in telomere dynamics'.
Keywords: disposable soma; evolutionary biology; intergenerational inertia; plasticity; predictive adaptive response; senescence.
© 2018 The Author(s).