Summary from the authors: telomere length predicts remaining lifespan

Close-up of an adult common tern with its prey. Photo credit: Andrea Parisi

Telomeres are DNA structures located at the end of chromosomes. They protect the chromosome, but shorten at each cell division. When telomeres get too short, the normal functioning of cells can be impaired. An individual’s telomere length may therefore predict its future lifespan, and understanding individual telomere dynamics could help to understand ageing in general.

Telomere shortening can be accelerated due to stress, thereby acting as a biomarker of an individual’s health status. However, some studies suggest that individual differences in telomere length are already determined at birth, and largely consistent over life.

We investigated individual telomere dynamics in a long-lived seabird, the common tern. The telomere lengths of 387 individuals, aged from 2 to 24 years, were repeatedly sampled across 10 years. We found that an individual’s telomeres shortened as they got older. Telomere shortening was also slightly increased if individuals had produced more chicks in the previous year. However, the correlation between repeated measures of an individual’s telomere length was very high, even with 6 years between measures. Nevertheless, an individual’s telomere length positively predicted its remaining lifespan, leaving the question of whether lifespan is already partly determined at the start of life.

Full article: Bichet C, Bouwhuis S, Bauch C, Verhulst S, Becker PH, Vedder O. 2019. Telomere length is repeatable, shortens with age and reproductive success, and predicts remaining lifespan in a long-lived seabird. Molecular ecology. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15331

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