Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein that synthesizes telomere repeats onto chromosome ends and is involved in maintaining telomere length in germline tissues and in immortal and cancer cells. In the present study, the temporal regulation of expression of telomerase activity was examined in human germline and somatic tissues and cells during development. Telomerase activity was detected in fetal, newborn, and adult testes and ovaries, but not in mature spermatozoa or oocytes. Blastocysts expressed high levels of telomerase activity as did most human somatic tissues at 16-20 weeks of development with the exception of human brain tissue. This activity could no longer be detected in the somatic tissues examined from the neonatal period onward. Neither placenta nor cultured fetal amniocytes contained detectable telomerase activity. Fetal tissues explanted into primary cell culture showed a dramatic decline in telomerase activity which became undetectable after the first passage in vitro. Elucidation of the regulatory pathways involved in the repression of telomerase activity during development may lead to the ability to manipulate telomerase levels and explore the consequences both for cellular aging and for the survival of cancer cells.