We’re all familiar with the inescapable effects that the march of time has on our bodies, but the processes that drive aging are still offering up surprises. Scientists have long known that DNA segments called telomeres play a crucial part in our aging process, but new research has discovered a protein that acts as a kind of cellular timekeeper, regulating the length of telomeres to maintain healthy cell division and prevent the development of cancer.
Each time a cell divides, a tiny section of DNA is lost, and while this could be devastating to the cell, our bodies have a natural defense against the loss of any important genetic information.
Telomeres are little caps made of repetitive sections of DNA at the end of each chromosome, and whenever a cell divides they take the hit. The problem is, telomeres have a set length, and as they degrade over time that buffer zone eventually stops protecting the important bits of information, leading to the well-known bodily wear-and-tear we associate with aging.
“Telomeres represent the clock of a cell,” says Eros Lazzerini Denchi, corresponding author of the study. “You are born with telomeres of a certain length, and every time a cell divides, it loses a little bit of the telomere. Once the telomere is too short, the cell cannot divide anymore.”