Telomere length in young zebra finches predicts lifespan

January 10, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Telomere length in young zebra finches predicts lifespan
Zebra finches. Image: Nick Royle

( -- For hundreds, if not thousands of years scientists have been seeking clues to explain why we humans, and all other animals for that matter, age. But it’s been only recently that some real clues have been found, and many of them center around telomeres, the caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes and prevent them from fraying. Now, in a new study by Pat Monaghan and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, it appears that at least with zebra finches, telomeres may serve as a predictor of longevity. In their study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that longer telomere length in the birds when they were young, pointed to a longer lifespan.

Because length has been thought to have ties to longevity, Monaghan and her team decided to study them more thoroughly. Previously, researchers have taken samples just once or twice with individual test ; Monaghan thought that wasn’t enough, so she and her team set about taking samples from 99 zebra finches periodically over their entire lifetimes to see if any pattern might emerge. And of course one did; they found that samples taken at 25 days old proved a reliable predictor of average longevity for a group. Longer telomeres meant a longer life.

The video will load shortly.
Professor Pat Monaghan explains the research.

Monaghan chose for the study because they are relatively long-lived species of animal, but not so long-lived that it would take the rest of her own life to study them. The birds typically live for a little less than ten years, though it’s not uncommon for them to die younger. In fact, in the study, nearly half of the birds died before reaching half that age. Also, though the cause of death in the birds wasn’t tracked, the team did make sure that it wasn’t due to infection, predators or accidents.

Monaghan and others in the field are quick to point out that the results of this study should not be seen as an indication that telomere length in young human beings could provide the same sorts of clues to longevity, as that would be a rather giant leap in logic; though it does seem logical that such an experiment should be done with people, as doing so requires nothing more than a simple blood test every few years.

The next step for the group will be to try to determine if the telomere length at 25 days for the finches is heredity or comes about due to some unknown environmental factors.

Explore further: Stress in early life reduces life expectancy - and that of partners

More information: Telomere length in early life predicts lifespan, PNAS, Published online before print January 9, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1113306109

The attrition of telomeres, the ends of eukaryote chromosomes, is thought to play an important role in cell deterioration with advancing age. The observed variation in telomere length among individuals of the same age is therefore thought to be related to variation in potential longevity. Studies of this relationship are hampered by the time scale over which individuals need to be followed, particularly in long-lived species where lifespan variation is greatest. So far, data are based either on simple comparisons of telomere length among different age classes or on individuals whose telomere length is measured at most twice and whose subsequent survival is monitored for only a short proportion of the typical lifespan. Both approaches are subject to bias. Key studies, in which telomere length is tracked from early in life, and actual lifespan recorded, have been lacking. We measured telomere length in zebra finches (n = 99) from the nestling stage and at various points thereafter, and recorded their natural lifespan (which varied from less than 1 to almost 9 y). We found telomere length at 25 d to be a very strong predictor of realized lifespan (P < 0.001); those individuals living longest had relatively long telomeres at all points at which they were measured. Reproduction increased adult telomere loss, but this effect appeared transient and did not influence survival. Our results provide the strongest evidence available of the relationship between telomere length and lifespan and emphasize the importance of understanding factors that determine early life telomere length.

Related Stories

Telomere length affects colorectal cancer risk

October 28, 2010

For the first time, researchers have found a link between long telomeres and an increased risk for colorectal cancer, according to research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research special conference on Colorectal ...

Position of telomeres in nucleus influences length

July 13, 2011

( -- A study the latest issue of Nature Cell Biology sheds light on the mechanism controlling telomere length in budding yeast. In this publication, scientists from the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical ...

Longevity tied to genes that preserve tips of chromosomes

November 11, 2009

A team led by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University has found a clear link between living to 100 and inheriting a hyperactive version of an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres - the tip ends ...

New blood test shows how long you will live

May 17, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- A controversial test capable of revealing just how long you have to live is set to hit the market in Britain within the year. The test measures a person's telomeres which are the structures found on the ...

Recommended for you

The astonishing efficiency of life

November 17, 2017

All life on earth performs computations – and all computations require energy. From single-celled amoeba to multicellular organisms like humans, one of the most basic biological computations common across life is translation: ...

Unexpected finding solves 40-year old cytoskeleton mystery

November 17, 2017

Scientists have been searching for it for decades: the enzyme that cuts the amino acid tyrosine off an important part of the cell's skeleton. Researchers of the Netherlands Cancer Institute have now identified this mystery ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2012
This reminds me to reorder some Astragalus.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 10, 2012
I'd rather have the option to lengthen my telomeres before knowing how long they are. Who wants to know when they're going to die if there's nothing they can do about it? :P
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 10, 2012
Li Ching-Yuen, the man who lived for 250 years, emphasized the ingestion of Gotu Kola. And all this time, I thought he said Coca Cola.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.