President Obama, Please Control Your Telomeres!

(Credit: Claus Azzalin, ISREC)(Credit: Claus Azzalin, ISREC)The media wants to know how fast our new President, Barack Obama, will age over the next four to eight years, what with the stress of the Presidency. Practically every TV news network has a five-minute feature story on how past presidents have aged showing their pictures "before and after," the grey hair, puffy eyes, jowls, and lots of wrinkles (particularly the worry lines) have set in. And now, scientists know what causes all this to happen to Presidents and other worry warts; it's all about their telomeres.

Essentially telomeres are the protective DNA enzymes at the ends of cell chromosomes. These "tips" of the chromosomes have the capacity to divide a number of times, say 50 to 100 times during your life, depending on what the DNA of each cells dictates. In normal cell division, the telomeres get shorter with each divide, until finally the cell can no longer duplicate and it dies.

Why are these cell tips so important to how the President ages? Well, they are important to how we all age. Telomeres cells divide more rapidly under certain conditions, like stress. So there is actually a burn out process where all of our cells, including those we can witness dying in the skin and hair, perish. When cells begin dying, we have a finite number of similar cells left; we are aging, our biological clocks running out.

Behaviorally, we can slow the process of cell death somewhat by avoiding stress, eating healthy foods, exercising.... And cellular science is focused now on how to re-create self-regenerating telomeres cells in animals, including humans. That discovery would certainly be the secret to eternal youth.

There's a big stumbling block, however. It's called cancer. You see cancer cells have continuous telomerase activity going on. A normal cell eventual dies; cancer cells spread via continuous telomerase activity. And being that there are many pre-mutant cells in all of our bodies just sitting there waiting for a chance to "divide and conquer," we can't take the "telomeres pill."

So, it's aging or cancer... for now... even if a few hundred supplement and skin care companies are telling you that their products will repair your DNA and jump-start your telomeres....

But there's still hope, for President Obama and the rest of us. The existence of telomeres as part of our genetic material is relatively new and there is still much to be learned. Doubtless, you'll be hearing more and more about the importance of telomeres in the future.


Resources: Telomeres and Transplanted Cells, Genetic Recombination in Bacteria,, Science Daily 10/7/2007, Science Daily 8/26/2008


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