Every time your cells divide, the "telomeres," or caps on the ends of your chromosomes, get a little shorter. Elderly creatures begin to suffer diseases of old age partly because their telomeres have become so short, and cellular division becomes difficult and error-prone. That's why telomeres are the subject of intensive study: If we could figure out the mechanism that keeps our telomeres from shortening, it's possible we could prolong our lives. Now a group of California researchers have discovered that a protein called Est3 (pictured) is partly responsible for keeping telomeres long. Manipulating that protein could bring us one step closer to healthy cell longevity.As they explain in an article published this week in Nature Structure and Molecular Biology, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, led by molecular and cell biology professor Vicki Lundblad, have discovered how Est3 keeps telomeres long each time yeast cells divide. Telomeres are made with an enzyme known as telomerase, and Est3 helps pack extra telomerase onto the ends of newly-divided chromosomes. Then the telomerase builds longer telomeres to keep those cells youthful. But what's really intriguing about all this is that Est3, which you'll recall is in yeast cells, has an analog in mammals known as TPP1. This is where things get really exciting. If it turns out that TPP1 is involved in keeping our telomeres long, scientists can start researching it and determining whether it could provide a key to keeping humans young for much longer than ever before. There is a danger, though. As the researchers point out in a release about their work:

Factors that regulate telomerase activity are a very hot topic in biomedicine: sluggish telomerase activity promotes premature cell death and may underlie diseases of aging via telomere shortening, while hyperactive telomerase could promote uncontrolled cell division and cellular immortality associated with cancer.


So we don't want too much telomerase, or our cells will go cancerous. But the discovery of Est3 bodes well for anyone who wouldn't mind a little protein intervention to keep their cells (and bodies) young. Keeping Cells Useful [Eurekalert via Salk Institute]