Is Our DNA Psychic? Telomeres Show Us Our Lifespan

First Posted: Feb 06, 2015 07:10 PM EST

Our DNA says a lot about us. In fact, we are composed of our DNA. Yet did you know Deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions in the development of living organisms and viruses, can also give a hint about the length of our lifespan?

BYU biologist Jonathan Alder has found that the end caps of our DNA, otherwise known as telomeres, can actually indicate life expectancy. More specifically, people with shorter telomeres will typically have shorter lifespans than counterparts with longer ones and be more prone to liver disease, marrow failure, lung disease and/or skin disease.

"When we are born, our telomeres are longer. As you get older, they shorten," said Alder, an assistant professor of physiology and developmental biology at BYU, in a news release. "What we have found is that if you look at individuals with lung disease, they have shorter telomeres than the rest of us."

The researchers are currently studying gene mutations that cause some people to have unnaturally short telomeres. When a telomere runs out, the cell becomes inactive and dies, leading to disease and a potentially shorter lifespan.

The research was also focused on emphysema--a leading cause of death in the United States. Researchers noted how a fraction of individuals who develop severe emphysema also have mutations in one of the genes that's 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. Furthermore, the mutations have certain implications for future generations.

"Families with telomere mutations pass those down the line, meaning offspring start off with shorter telomeres," he added. "With each passing generation the disease gets worse and they get it at an earlier age."

"Most people don't realize that lung disease is the third most common cause of death in the United States,"  concluded lead researcher Mary Armanios, associate professor of oncology at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Telomere research has its most significant direct public health benefit in the area of lung disease."

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the Journal of Clinical Investigation and Chest

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