Length of telomeres linked to lung disease risk, life expectancy generally

Feb. 9, 2015

Brigham Young University biologist Jonathan Alder, PhD, knows when most of us are going to die.

He doesn’t know exactly the day or time, but he has a pretty good idea, thanks to his research on tiny biological clocks attached to our chromosomes. These DNA end caps, called telomeres, are predictors of life expectancy: the shorter your telomeres, the shorter your lifespan.

But that’s not the only thing these fascinating strands of DNA predict. Shorter telomeres also indicate a greater chance for bone marrow failure, liver disease, skin disease, and lung disease.

Alder and other scientists have been tinkering with telomeres, trying to figure out ways to extend them and studying mutations within them. Now, a research team Alder is part of has found another link between telomeres and lung disease.

“When we are born, our telomeres are longer. As we get older, they shorten,” says Alder. “What we have found is that if you look at individuals with lung disease, they have shorter telomeres than the rest of us.”

Alder is currently studying gene mutations that cause people to have unnaturally short telomeres. Recent research he coauthored with collaborators at Johns Hopkins University, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and Chest, finds those mutations are connected to both pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema.

The findings on emphysema are particularly interesting. The researchers found that a fraction of individuals who develop severe emphysema have mutations in one of the genes responsible for maintaining telomeres. Since mutations in telomere genes are known to cause pulmonary fibrosis, these findings link two diseases that were previously thought to be unrelated. These mutations have implications for future generations too.

Learn more by reading the full press release at the BYU website