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J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol. 2004 Mar 15;302(2):111-20.

Is telomere erosion a mechanism of species extinction?

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Institut für Medizinische Biologie, Medizinische Universität Wien, Währingerstrasse 10, 1090 Vienna, Austria.


According to the fossil record, 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on Earth have disappeared. However, only about 4% died out during the five mass extinction events, whereas it seems that the majority of species vanished without any signs of significant earthbound or extraterrestrial physical threats. Clearly, biological extinction mechanisms are by far the most important, but they are subject to serious limitations concerning the worldwide disappearance of species. In view of that, species-inherent mechanisms, which could lead to the worldwide destabilization of a population, might be worth reconsideration. Telomeres, the protective caps of chromosome ends, and the enzyme telomerase have been well preserved in plants and animals during evolution. In the absence of telomerase activity, telomeric DNA has been shown to shorten every time a cell divides. The concept of a mitotic clock based on the gradual erosion of telomeres is now generally accepted and has been confirmed in numerous plants and animals. Chromosomal rearrangements are the hallmarks of two completely different biological phenomena, cancer and speciation. In premalignant cells, gradual telomere erosion beyond a critical threshold is a well-known inducer of chromosomal instability. The species clock hypothesis, as presented here, is based on the idea of a tiny loss of mean telomere length per generation. This mechanism would not rapidly endanger the survival of a particular species. Yet, after many thousands of generations, critically short telomeres could lead to the weakening and even the extinction of old species and would simultaneously create the unstable chromosomal environment that might result in the origination of new species.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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