Biochemistry, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 95, pp. 14763–14768, December 1998. Copyright © 1998 by The National Academy of Sciences. Used by Permission


Although human and rodent telomeres have been studied extensively, very little is known about telomere dynamics in other vertebrates. Moreover, our current dependence on mice as a model for human tumorigenesis and aging poses a problem because human and mouse telomere biology is very different. To explore whether chickens might provide a more useful model, we have examined telomerase activity and telomere length in chicken tissues as well as in primary cell cultures. Although chicken telomeres resemble human telomeres in that they are 8–20 kb in length, the distribution of telomerase activity in chickens resembles what is found in mice. Active enzyme is present in germline tissue as well as in a wide range of somatic tissues. Because chicken cells exhibit extremely low rates of spontaneous immortalization, this finding indicates that constitutive telomerase expression does not necessarily lead to an increased immortalization frequency. Finally, we found that telomerase activity is greatly down-regulated when primary cultures are established from chicken embryos. Although this down-regulation explains the telomere loss and replicative senescence that we observed in fibroblast cultures, it raises questions concerning how relevant studies of senescence in primary cell cultures are to aging in whole animals.