The Science of Cells that Never Get Old | Elizabeth Blackburn

Cellular biology focuses on the building blocks of larger organisms; cells and what comprises them. Most of us blunder through life never thinking of the literal little things, but they’re everywhere and are crucial to how everything works. Even pond scum.

Cells start out singularly; just the one. But cells divide, harnessing the power of compound division to become more, and more, and still more. Two becomes four, becomes eight, and so on until you’re talking about real numbers. With cells, the numbers quickly run into the billions and trillions.

All cells contain DNA. And most cells will suffer from age, becoming weaker or damaged as time passes. One kind of cell, a certain variety of pond scum called tetrahymena, doesn’t though. That has caught the eye of cellular biologists. Not just because it’s unique, but because it’s potentially quite valuable in helping to understand and unlock some as yet unsolved mysteries in how life works.

Most cells, as they age, will see their telomeres shorten; this is what causes them to age. Tetrahymena has a substance scientists have named telomerase that replenishes telomeres. When telomerase is removed, tetrahymena cells act as other cells do; their telomeres will shorten, and they will die. With telomerase present though, they resist the ravages of aging. Research is ongoing into how and why this works, and if it can be harnessed further.

Key Points:

  • 1Telomeres are on the ends of chromosomes. They are DNA. Every copy of a cell the ends get shorter.
  • 2Telomerase is an enzyme that prevents the shortening of Telomeres. Short Telomeres lead to aging and increase some disease chance. There must be balance, increase telomerase and cancer risk goes up.
  • 3The more years in a chronic stress situation, the shorter the Telomeres. Stress hormone cortisol damages enzyme Telomerase. People with good attitudes, social networks are resistant.


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