Telomeres, which can be likened to caps at the end of chromosomes that protect against deterioration, shorten as we age. Once they are too short for the cell to divide, organs and tissues degenerate. Telemorase has been the focus on many aging-related research efforts due to its ability to rebuild these telomeres and allow cells to divide indefinitely.
"Previous studies had suggested that once assembled, telomerase is available whenever it is needed," says Vicki Lundblad, professor and holder of Salk's Ralph S. and Becky O'Connor Chair. "We were surprised to discover instead that telomerase has what is in essence an 'off' switch, whereby it disassembles."
The researchers say that finding a way to control this "off" switch could provide a way to slow down the telomere-shortening process, leading to treatments for age-related diseases and the ability to regenerate organs later in life.