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Stem Cells. 2005 Apr;23(4):516-29.

Overexpression of telomerase confers growth advantage, stress resistance, and enhanced differentiation of ESCs toward the hematopoietic lineage.

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Institute of Human Genetics, International Centre for Life, Central Parkway, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 3BZ, U.K.


Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are capable of extended self-renewal and maintenance of pluripotency even after many population doublings. This is supported by high levels of telomerase activity and enhanced antioxidant protection in ESCs, both of which are downregulated during differentiation. To examine the role of telomerase for ESC self-renewal and differentiation, we overexpressed the reverse transcriptase subunit (Tert) of murine telomerase in ESCs. Increased telomerase activity enhances the self-renewal ability of the Tert-overexpressing ESCs, improves their resistance to apoptosis, and increases their proliferation. The differentiated progeny of wild-type ESCs express little Tert and show shortening of telomeric overhangs. In contrast, the progeny of Tert-overexpressing ESCs maintain high telomerase activity, as well as the length of G-rich overhangs. In addition, these cells accumulate lower concentrations of peroxides than wild-type cells, implying greater resistance to oxidative stress. Finally, differentiation toward hematopoietic lineages is more efficient as a result of the continued expression of Tert. Microarray analysis revealed that overexpression of Tert altered expression of a variety of genes required for extended self-renewal and lifespan. Our results suggest that telomerase functions as a "survival enzyme" in ESCs and its differentiated progeny by protecting the telomere cap and by influencing the expression patterns of stress response and defense genes. This results in improved proliferation of ESCs and more efficient differentiation, and these results might have profound consequences for stem cell-replacement therapies.

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