Telomeres are specialized DNA-protein complexes located at the chromosome ends. The guanine-rich telomeric sequences have the ability to form G-quadruplex structures under physiological ionic conditions in vitro. Human telomeres are maintained through addition of TTAGGG repeats by the enzyme telomerase. To determine a correlation between DNA secondary structure and human telomerase, telomerase activity in the presence of various metal cations was monitored. Telomerase synthesized a larger proportion of products corresponding to four, five, eight, and nine full repeats of TTAGGG in 100 mM K+ and to a lesser extent in 100 mM Na+ when a d(TTAGGG)3 input primer was used. A more even product distribution was observed when the reaction mixture contained no added Na+ or K+. Increasing concentrations of Cs+ resulted in a loss of processivity but not in the distinct manner observed in K+. When the input primer contained 7-deaza-dG, the product distribution resembled that of reactions without K+ even in the presence of 100 mM K+. Native polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis indicated that d(TTAGGG)4, d(TTAGGG)5, d(TTAGGG)8, and d(TTAGGG)9 formed compact structures in the presence of K+. The oligonucleotide d(TTAGGG)4 had a UV spectrum characteristic of that of the G-quadruplex only in the presence of K+ and Na+. A reasonable explanation for these results is that four, five, eight, and nine repeats of TTAGGG form DNA secondary structures which promote dissociation of the primer from telomerase. This suggests that telomerase activity in cells can be modulated by the secondary structure of the DNA template. These findings are of probable relevance to the concept of telomerase as a therapeutic target for drug design.