Live-cell imaging reveals the dynamics and function of single-telomere TERRA molecules in cancer cells

RNA Biol. 2018;15(6):787-796. doi: 10.1080/15476286.2018.1456300. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


Telomeres cap the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes, protecting them from degradation and erroneous recombination events which may lead to genome instability. Telomeres are transcribed giving rise to telomeric repeat-containing RNAs, called TERRA. The TERRA long noncoding RNAs have been proposed to play important roles in telomere biology, including heterochromatin formation and telomere length homeostasis. While TERRA RNAs are predominantly nuclear and localize at telomeres, little is known about the dynamics and function of TERRA molecules expressed from individual telomeres. Herein, we developed an assay to image endogenous TERRA molecules expressed from a single telomere in living human cancer cells. We show that single-telomere TERRA can be detected as TERRA RNA single particles which freely diffuse within the nucleus. Furthermore, TERRA molecules aggregate forming TERRA clusters. Three-dimensional size distribution and single particle tracking analyses revealed distinct sizes and dynamics for TERRA RNA single particles and clusters. Simultaneous time lapse confocal imaging of TERRA particles and telomeres showed that TERRA clusters transiently co-localize with telomeres. Finally, we used chemically modified antisense oligonucleotides to deplete TERRA molecules expressed from a single telomere. Single-telomere TERRA depletion resulted in increased DNA damage at telomeres and elsewhere in the genome. These results suggest that single-telomere TERRA transcripts participate in the maintenance of genomic integrity in human cancer cells.

Keywords: DNA damage; TERRA; Telomeres; cancer; live-cell imaging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Nucleus / genetics
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Oligonucleotides, Antisense / genetics
  • Oligonucleotides, Antisense / pharmacology
  • RNA, Long Noncoding / genetics
  • RNA, Long Noncoding / metabolism*
  • RNA, Neoplasm / genetics
  • RNA, Neoplasm / metabolism*
  • Telomere / metabolism*
  • Telomere / pathology


  • Oligonucleotides, Antisense
  • RNA, Long Noncoding
  • RNA, Neoplasm

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