Telomeres and Telomerase

Telomeres and Telomerase:

After reading this, please read this short news piece from the journal "Nature."
Two problems:
  1. As we have discussed, the chemistry of replication leaves the lagging strand not fully replicated. There is a 3' extension of what had been the template. This would lead to shortening of the chromosome with each round of replication.
  2. We have not previously discussed this, but the ends of broken chromosomes, or just free ends of linear DNA, lead to recombination or “splicing” together of these fragments. Also, free ends of DNA tend to be degraded by enzymes quickly. So, what is special about the ends of our chromosomes that keeps this from happening?
Telomeres can be described as the specialized ends of chromosomes that protect the rest of chromosome and keep it stable.

Cancer and the Hayflick Limit

Our cells seem to go through a fixed number of divisions before they no longer can keep going. This is called the “Hayflick Limit” after the person who noticed it.
However, cancer cells are immortal…they overcome this limit. Also, there must be a way for cells to fix the problem so that we can “reset” the Hayflick limit when a new embryo is formed. One more thing: one-celled organisms don’t have a Hayflick limit. They can grow indefinitely. All of this pointed to some enzyme activity needed to maintain the ends.

The Sequence:

Well, since we are talking about DNA, it seems likely that there is some specific sequence that corresponds to the Telomere. There is. In humans and other vertebrates, the sequence is the short repeat 5'(TTAGGG)n, where “n” is an integer between 300 and 8000. So, that can be 50,000 bases.
  • How does it get there?
  • How does it achieve the goals above?


The enzyme Telomerase is a little unusual. It has a DNA polymerase activity and needs a 3' end to which it adds. But, it carries a short RNA that acts as its template. So, it finds the free 3' end, which is already longer than the newly replicated strand (due to the lagging-strand problem), uses the internal template to extend the repeated sequence over and over again. Because it uses RNA as a template, but polymerizes DNA, it is known as an RNA-dependent DNA polymerase, also known as “reverse transcriptase,” since it is the opposite of transcription. The image is stolen from Wikipedia and shows the repeating sequence
That’s how it gets there.
It fixes the shortening problem by just adding the sequence. This can then serve as a template for more lagging-strand synthesis. That will still leave a short 3' extension, but will re-lengthen the telomere.
It’s an interesting enzyme.I’ve found many other images with great detail on it, but decided to steal this one:

It shows that there is a long complex RNA that interacts with several proteins (Dyskerin, TERT and some smaller ones). The RNA is much more than the template. It folds into a complex structure that fits into the proteins. The reason I included this one because it makes reference to a couple of forms of a genetic disease known as “Dyskeratosis.” This is a version of premature aging where the effects are seen as premature organ failure, rather than an old-looking outward appearance. Does it make sense that mutations to genes in the telomerase complex would lead to that?

As for how it solves problem number two, the extended 3’ end will fold back around and, along with some accessory proteins, will form a complex, stable structure shown below in cartoon form:

This cartoon is from from:

A more realistic view of the DNA in it’s four-strand form is below: (Image from Wikipedia):


The green dot is a monvalent cation.
This depicts how the structure forms. Note that the strands are
Parallel, not antiparallel.
(image from this website: