Telomeres are like caps for the chromosomes (seen here in red) protecting the tip of chromosome like the plastic caps on shoe laces. It does not contain any genetic information and its main function is to protect the chromosome during cell division. The size or length of these telomeres decreases with every cycle of cell division. Since the cell division is a continuous process throughout life, the length of telomeres reduces with age.
Excessive shortening of telomeres results in sticking of chromosomes to each other eventually leads to cell death and increased risk of bone marrow failure, liver disease, skin disease and lung disease. Whereas telomeres that keep their length can lead to other complications like cancer.
“This is a definite Goldilocks situation,” Alder said. “Too little, you age prematurely; too much, you could get more serious diseases. You need to be just right.”
Alder, an assistant professor of physiology and developmental biology at Brigham Young University in his study showed that individuals with lung diseases have shorter telomeres and mutations in telomere binding protein TINF2. Also the findings from the research on emphysema, one of the leading causes of death in the U.S are interesting.
Emphysema a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term, progressive disease of the lungs that primarily causes shortness of breath due to over-inflation of the alveoli (air sacs in the lung). A fraction of the individuals developing emphysema were shown to develop mutations in the essential telomerase gene TRET, responsible for maintaining telomeres and had short telomeres. This mutation has its effects on the future generations as well. “Families with telomere mutations pass those down the line, meaning offspring start off with shorter telomeres,” Alder said. “With each passing generation the disease gets worse and they get it at an earlier age.” These finding relate the telomere mutations and the risk of pulmonary diseases.
“Most people don’t realize that lung disease is the third most common cause of death in the United States,” said lead researcher Mary Armanios, associate professor of oncology at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Telomere research has its most significant direct public health benefit in the area of lung disease.” This latest research suggests that individuals with telomere mutations who smoke even for a brief part of their life are at greater risk of developing lung diseases.
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