Short Telomeres Induce p53 and Autophagy and Modulate Age-Associated Changes in Cardiac Progenitor Cell Fate

Stem Cells. 2018 Jun;36(6):868-880. doi: 10.1002/stem.2793. Epub 2018 Feb 25.


Aging severely limits myocardial repair and regeneration. Delineating the impact of age-associated factors such as short telomeres is critical to enhance the regenerative potential of cardiac progenitor cells (CPCs). We hypothesized that short telomeres activate p53 and induce autophagy to elicit the age-associated change in CPC fate. We isolated CPCs and compared mouse strains with different telomere lengths for phenotypic characteristics of aging. Wild mouse strain Mus musculus castaneus (CAST) possessing short telomeres exhibits early cardiac aging with cardiac dysfunction, hypertrophy, fibrosis, and senescence, as compared with common lab strains FVB and C57 bearing longer telomeres. CAST CPCs with short telomeres demonstrate altered cell fate as characterized by cell cycle arrest, senescence, basal commitment, and loss of quiescence. Elongation of telomeres using a modified mRNA for telomerase restores youthful properties to CAST CPCs. Short telomeres induce autophagy in CPCs, a catabolic protein degradation process, as evidenced by reduced p62 and increased accumulation of autophagic puncta. Pharmacological inhibition of autophagosome formation reverses the cell fate to a more youthful phenotype. Mechanistically, cell fate changes induced by short telomeres are partially p53 dependent, as p53 inhibition rescues senescence and commitment observed in CAST CPCs, coincident with attenuation of autophagy. In conclusion, short telomeres activate p53 and autophagy to tip the equilibrium away from quiescence and proliferation toward differentiation and senescence, leading to exhaustion of CPCs. This study provides the mechanistic basis underlying age-associated cell fate changes that will enable identification of molecular strategies to prevent senescence of CPCs. Stem Cells 2018;36:868-880.

Keywords: Aging; Autophagy; Cardiac progenitor cells; Telomeres; p53.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Autophagy
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Telomere / metabolism*
  • Telomere Shortening / physiology*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism*


  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53