Each time a cell divides the protective telomere 'cap' gets shorter. When they get too short, the cell loses its ability to renew and divide. In an immortal animal we would therefore expect cells to be able to maintain telomere length indefinitely so that they can continue to replicate. Dr Aboobaker predicted that planarian worms actively maintain the ends of their chromosomes in adult stem cells, leading to theoretical immortality.
Dr Thomas Tan made some exciting discoveries for this paper as part of his PhD. He performed a series of challenging experiments to explain the worm's immortality. In collaboration with the rest of the team, he also went some way to understanding the clever molecular trick that enabled cells to go on dividing indefinitely without suffering from shortened chromosome ends.
Previous work, leading to the award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, had shown that telomeres could be maintained by the activity of an enzyme called telomerase. In most sexually reproducing organisms the enzyme is most active only during early development. So as we age, telomeres start to reduce in length.
This project identified a possible planarian version of the gene coding for this enzyme and turned down its activity. This resulted in reduced telomere length and proved it was the right gene. They were then able to confidently measure its activity and resulting telomere length and found that asexual worms dramatically increase the activity of this gene when they regenerate, allowing stem cells to maintain their telomeres as they divide to replace missing tissues.
Dr Tan pointed out the importance of the interdisciplinary expertise: "It was serendipitous to be sandwiched between Professor Edward Louis's yeast genetics lab and the Chi
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University of Nottingham