Telomeres are the tandemly repeated (TTAGGG)n sequences that make up the structural and functional ends of all chromosomes in mammals. Many lines of evidence indicate that telomeres stabilize chromosomes, prevent aberrant recombination, and direct chromosome attachment to the nuclear membrane. Since DNA polymerase requires a labile primer to initiate unidirectional 5'-3' DNA synthesis, some bases at the 3' end of each template strand are not copied unless special mechanisms bypass this end-replication problem. To overcome this problem, most eukaryotic cells use telomerase, an enzyme that elongates telomeres. However, this enzyme has not been detected in normal human cells, and these cells lose telomeres with cell division. Cellular senescence might be the result of this loss. Thus, activation of telomerase seems to be critical for the immortalization of human cell lines. In addition, substantial evidence indicates that immortalization in itself is a rate-limiting step for the malignant transformation of human cells. We have treated normal human fibroblasts (AD387, KMS-6, and OUMS-24 lines) intermittently with either 60Co gamma rays or 4-nitroquinoline 1-oxide (4NQO) during serial subcultivations, and have obtained three immortalized cell lines, SUSM-1, KMST-6, and OUMS-24F. In KMS-6 and OUMS-24, the mean terminal restriction fragment length significantly decreased as the population-doubling level increased. The rate of telomere loss was 40 and 50 bp/population doubling in the KMS-6 and OUMS-24 cell lines, respectively. Once these normal cell lines were immortalized, their telomeres became elongated. Similar data were obtained for AD387 cells and their immortalized SUSM-1 cells. These results suggest that telomeres play a critical role in cellular senescence and in the immortalization processes of human cells.