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Dev Biol. 2004 Oct 1;274(1):15-30.

Telomere biology in mammalian germ cells and during development.

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  • 1Laboratory for Biochemistry and Molecular Cytology, Department for Molecular Biotechnology, FLTBW-Ghent University, Belgium.


The development of an organism is a strictly regulated program in which controlled gene expression guarantees the establishment of a specific phenotype. The chromosome termini or so-called telomeres preserve the integrity of the genome within developing cells. In the germline, during early development, and in highly proliferative organs, human telomeres are balanced between shortening processes with each cell division and elongation by telomerase, but once terminally differentiated or mature the equilibrium is shifted to gradual shortening by repression of the telomerase enzyme. Telomere length is to a large extent genetically determined and the neonatal telomere length equilibrium is, in fact, a matter of evolution. Gradual telomere shortening in normal human somatic cells during consecutive rounds of replication eventually leads to critically short telomeres that induce replicative senescence in vitro and probably in vivo. Hence, a molecular clock is set during development, which determines the replicative potential of cells during extrauterine life. Telomeres might be directly or indirectly implicated in longevity determination in vivo, and information on telomere length setting in utero and beyond should help elucidate presumed causal connections between early growth and aging disorders later in life. Only limited information exists concerning the mechanisms underlying overall telomere length regulation in the germline and during early development, especially in humans. The intent of this review is to focus on recent advances in our understanding of telomere biology in germline cells as well as during development (pre- and postimplantation periods) in an attempt to summarize our knowledge about telomere length determination and its importance for normal development in utero and the occurrence of the aging and abnormal phenotype later on.

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