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Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Jul 7;270(1522):1387-92.

Telomeres shorten more slowly in long-lived birds and mammals than in short-lived ones.

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Department of Zoology and Genetics, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA.


We know very little about physiological constraints on the evolution of life-history traits in general, and, in particular, about physiological and molecular adjustments that accompany the evolution of variation in lifespan. Identifying mechanisms that underlie adaptive variation in lifespan should provide insight into the evolution of trade-offs between lifespan and other life-history traits. Telomeres, the DNA caps at the ends of linear chromosomes, usually shorten as animals age, but whether telomere rate of change is associated with lifespan is unknown. We measured telomere length in erythrocytes from five bird species with markedly different lifespans. Species with shorter lifespans lost more telomeric repeats with age than species with longer lifespans. A similar correlation is seen in mammals. Furthermore, telomeres did not shorten with age in Leach's storm-petrels, an extremely long-lived bird, but actually lengthened. This novel finding suggests that regulation of telomere length is associated not only with cellular replicative lifespan, but also with organismal lifespan, and that very long-lived organisms have escaped entirely any telomeric constraint on cellular replicative lifespan.

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