According to the telomere hypothesis of senescence, the progressive shortening of telomeres that occurs upon division of normal somatic cells eventually leads to cellular senescence. The immortalisation of human cells is associated with the acquisition of a telomere maintenance mechanism which is usually dependent upon expression of the enzyme telomerase. About one third of in vitro immortalised human cell lines, however, have no detectable telomerase but contain telomeres that are abnormally long. The nature of the alternative telomere maintenance mechanism (referred to as ALT, for Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres) that must exist in these telomerase-negative cells has not been elucidated. It has previously been shown that abnormal lengthening of yeast telomeres may occur due to mutations in the yeast telomerase RNA gene. That this is not the mechanism of the abnormally long telomeres in ALT cell lines was demonstrated by the finding that seven of seven ALT lines have wild-type human telomerase RNA (hTR) sequence, including a novel polymorphism that is present in 30% of normal individuals. We found that two ALT cell lines have no detectable expression of the hTR gene. This shows that the ALT mechanism in these cell lines is not dependent on hTR. Expression of exogenous hTR via infection of these cells with a recombinant hTR-adenovirus vector did not result in telomerase activity, indicating that their lack of telomerase activity is not due to absence of hTR expression. We conclude that the ALT mechanism is not dependent on the expression of hTR, and does not involve mutations in the hTR sequence.