When cells divide the process fails to copy DNA all the way to the end. Telomeres are are the end of DNA strands, as essentially a buffer of material that won’t cause information to be lost when part of the telomere isn’t copied. As DNA is copied, as new cells are created, the length of telomeres at the end is reduced. Once the telomeres are gone the cell will no longer divide.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to 3 scientists for discovering how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase.
There is some debate over the benefit of the mechanism of cells not dividing do to lack of telomere. This can prevent cancerous cells from replicating (once they replicate to the extent that the necessary telomere buffer is gone). It is also seen that as telomeres get shorter the cells become more likely to become cancerous.
Cancer also can stimulate the production of telomerase which can stop telomeres from getting shorter as cells divide and thus allow the cancer cells to keep dividing (thus producing more cancer cell and increasing the amount of cancerous cells). Using telomerase to allow health cells to avoid the limits of division is being researched.
Are Telomeres the Key to Aging and Cancer? (University of Utah)
Cells normally can divide only about 50 to 70 times, with telomeres getting progressively shorter until the cells become senescent, die or sustain genetic damage that can cause cancer.
shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lives. Among people older than 60, those with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease.
While telomere shortening has been linked to the aging process, it is not yet known whether shorter telomeres are just a sign of aging – like gray hair – or actually contribute to aging.