Telomerase and differentiation in multicellular organisms: Turn it off, turn it on, and turn it off again

Nicholas R. Forsyth, Woodring E. Wright, Jerry W. Shay

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

292 Scopus citations


Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein complex that catalyses the addition of TTAGGG repeats onto telomeres, repetitive DNA structures found at the ends of linear chromosomes. The majority of human somatic tissues do not display telomerase activity and undergo telomeric shortening with consecutive divisions. This telomeric shortening results in replicative senescence in vitro and likely in vivo. Telomerase activity is present in the vast majority of tumors, preventing telomeric shortening and thereby enabling indefinite cell divisions. Telomerase activity is regulated throughout human development, undergoing silencing in almost all organ systems from embryogenesis onwards. However, regulated telomerase activity is seen in basal/stem cell compartments of highly regenerative tissues, such as those of the immune system, skin, and intestine. Avian species display telomerase repression and telomeric shortening similar to that seen in humans. However, rodents retain telomerase-competency throughout their lifespan and have not been shown to display division-dependent telomere shortening. The regulation of telomerase activity in plants is less well understood, although early indications suggest ubiquitous competency. The aim of this review is to present current data regarding developmental regulation of telomerase in humans, mice, chickens and flowering plants. Differentiation, quiescence and telomerase activity regulation will then be addressed in three human representative tissue systems; blood, skin, and intestine. We will also highlight similarities, differences and misconceptions in the developing field of telomere and telomerase biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)188-197
Number of pages10
Issue number4-5
StatePublished - Jan 2002


  • Development
  • Differentiation
  • Telomerase
  • Telomere

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology
  • Cancer Research


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