Unless you’re an expert in biology and genetics, you probably aren’t aware of the significance of a telomere. Before you can understand what it is and what it does, this short story can help you piece the genetic puzzle together.
When many organ systems come together, an organism is formed. This organism is the human body. Each of those organ systems comprise of individual organs. The latter contains tissues, which serve to perform particular functions such as absorption and also secretion. The tissues contain cells that combine with each other to carry out these functions. Every cell consists of organelles, most notably the nucleus. Inside the nucleus are packages containing genetic information called chromosomes. This information, more popularly referred to as genes, is passed on from parents to their children. Genes are basically base pairs that develop the sequences required to form our bodies. A body grows and ages when cells duplicate, the process of which is called mitosis. During mitosis, a parent cell splits up into two new cells called daughters. Their genetic material is also copied during this process. Every chromosome has a protective cap known as a telomere, which is located at the ends of its arms. It ensures that genetic information passes on from one generation to the next. You could say that it is similar to the aglet found at the end of your shoelace. It prevents the shoelace fabric from fraying. Now that you know what telomeres are, you can learn a lot more about their significance.
Each telomere is basically a repeating sequence of DNA. Its length can reach up to 15,000 base pairs. Their main purpose is to protect chromosomes and prevent them from losing sequences of base pairs at their ends. They also prevent chromosomes from fusing together. Fusion of chromosomes can lead to cancer. During cell division, small portions of the telomeres are lost. This loss amounts to, per division, approximately 25-200 base pairs. Chromosome replication halts when telomeres become too short. At this stage, the chromosomes are said to have reached “critical length”. This leads to cells dying due to a process known as apoptosis. Cells cannot divide without telomeres, or rather after critical length is reached, because this would mean losing the ends, and therefore the genetic information they contain. A cell dying in such a manner is a normal phenomenon.
Some cells find a way to cheat death, so to speak. They avoid destruction, unlike normal cells, and this is when they become cancerous. As they become cancerous, they tend to divide with higher frequency, leading to shortening of a telomere. When telomeres shorten too much, the cells can die. But sometimes these cells activate telomerase, which is an enzyme that prevents the shortening of telomeres. Shortened telomeres have been found in pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and many other cancers. If scientists can find a way to measure telomerase and prevent its activation, they might be able to come up with an effective cure for cancer.
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