Cultured normal human and animal cells are predestinued to undergo irreversible functional decrements that mimick age changes in the whole organism. When normal human embryonic fibroblasts are cultured in vitro, 50 +/- 10 population doublings occur. This maximum potential is diminished in cells derived from older donors and appears to be inversely proportional to their age. The 50 population doubling limit can account for all cells produced during a lifetime. The limitation on doubling potential of cultured normal cells is also expressed in vivo when serial transplants are made. There may be a direct correlation between the mean maximum life spans of several species and the population doubling potential of their cultured cells. A plethora of functional decrements occur in cultured normal cells as they approach their maximum division capability. Many of these decrements are similar to those occurring in intact animals as they age. We have concluded that these functional decrements expressed in vitro, rather than cessation of cell division, are the essential contributors to age changes in intact animals. Thus, the study of events leading to functional losses in cultured normal cells may provide useful insights into the biology of aging.