Telomere lengthening and other functions of telomerase.
Telomerase is an enzyme that maintains the length of the telomere. The telomere length specifies the number of divisions a cell can undergo before it finally dies (i.e. the proliferative potential of cells). For example, telomerase is activated in embryonic cell lines and the telomere length is maintained at a constant level; therefore, these cells have an unlimited fission potential. Stem cells are characterized by a lower telomerase activity, which enables only partial compensation for the shortening of telomeres. Somatic cells are usually characterized by the absence of telomerase activity. Telomere shortening leads to the attainment of the Hayflick limit, the transition of cells to a state of senescence. The cells subsequently enter a state of crisis, accompanied by massive cell death. The surviving cells become cancer cells, which are capable both of dividing indefinitely and maintaining telomere length (usually with the aid of telomerase). Telomerase is a reverse transcriptase. It consists of two major components: telomerase RNA (TER) and reverse transcriptase (TERT). TER is a non-coding RNA, and it contains the region which serves as a template for telomere synthesis. An increasing number of articles focussing on the alternative functions of telomerase components have recently started appearing. The present review summarizes data on the structure, biogenesis, and functions of telomerase.