Skip to main content
Move the World.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered an enzyme that repairs and can protect your DNA from some of the ravages of age. Unfortunately, they didn’t know what it looked like, how it fit together, and therefore how to target it with drugs. For over 20 years, UC-Berkeley researchers have been trying to scan one of these elusive enzymes. This year, they succeeded, and we finally have a detailed picture of an enzyme that could play a key role in fighting both aging and cancer.

Tearing Pages from Your Genome: Every time a cell divides, it has to copy all your DNA, stored in 23 strings called chromosomes. If you’ve ever braided hair, you know there’s always a bit left over at the end, a little tuft sticking out past the hair tie. Copying DNA is like that. The chromosome can’t zip itself up all the way to the end, so it just trims off that last frayed bit—effectively tearing out a few “pages” of DNA every time. To avoid losing anything important, chromosomes have a cap on each end called a telomere, which is a string of meaningless DNA—like blank pages that you can afford to rip out.

Your Biological Clock: Unfortunately, you’re stuck with the number of blank pages you got when you were born. Over time, your telomeres shrink, and there’s less and less protection for your real DNA, making damage more likely. After a cell has divided 50 or 60 times, telomeres have been cut down to almost nothing, and it won’t divide at all anymore. That means your ability to make new cells (and therefore easily repair DNA, organs, and tissue) declines as cells get older.

Why Things Fall Apart: Many scientists speculate that depleted telomeres play a key role in explaining why aging makes our health and abilities all decline at the same time—things just seem to fall apart. (Turns out Yeats was wrong: the centromere is fine, it was the ends that cannot hold.) That sounds gloomy, but it’s not all bad. Telomeres put cells on a clock, but they also put them on a leash: limiting cell growth can protect us from cancer, when cells just go crazy and multiply out of control.

Topping Off: In the 1980s, Berkeley scientists discovered an enzyme that extends telomeres (imaginatively called telomerase). It adds a few blank pages of DNA to your chromosomes, effectively extending the life of the cell. But the enzyme is only expressed in embryos, where it builds up the telomeres you’ll use your whole life, and it’s rarer in adult cells. This made it hard to find in one piece and in large enough quantities to study. But after 20 years of searching, the Berkeley team managed to purify enough enzyme to scan it with an electron microscope. Now that we understand how all the proteins in it work and fit together, we can start to figure out how to make drugs that target it.

The Last Wrinkle: When telomerase was first discovered, there was a lot of hype about a “cure for aging.” That turned out to be very premature, since we’ve only just now managed to get a good look at it. But we’ve also come to appreciate the tradeoffs that evolution has been facing: short telomeres are not just dooming us to a declining old age—they also help stop cancerous cells from proliferating. That’s especially valuable for the elderly, who are more susceptible to cancer from a lifetime of mutations and DNA damage all over their chromosomes. And, in fact, cancerous cells have been found to turn telomerase back on to speed their own growth. A drug that just indiscriminately took the brakes off cell division might reverse some effects of old age, but it could also unleash tumors. That’s why some researchers are also looking for ways to block or reverse engineer telomerase to fight cancer growth. Either way, discovering the structure of this enzyme is a big breakthrough in the battle for longer, healthier lives.

Up Next

Medical Innovations
A New Way to Heal Badly Broken Bones with Electrical Stimulation
electrical stimulation
Medical Innovations
A New Way to Heal Badly Broken Bones with Electrical Stimulation
A new bone scaffold delivers electrical stimulation to broken bones, speeds up the healing process, and then simply dissolves into the body.

A new bone scaffold delivers electrical stimulation to broken bones, speeds up the healing process, and then simply dissolves into the body.

Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
coronavirus transmission
Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.

Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.

Public Health
First Coronavirus Vaccine Is Ready for Human Testing
coronavirus vaccine
Public Health
First Coronavirus Vaccine Is Ready for Human Testing
The experimental coronavirus vaccine, mRNA-1273, began human testing on March 16, several weeks ahead of expectations.

The experimental coronavirus vaccine, mRNA-1273, began human testing on March 16, several weeks ahead of expectations.

How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
Watch Now
How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
This app tests for anemia, and it's nearly as good as the gold-standard lab test.
Watch Now

Anemia affects up to ⅓ of the world’s population, but tests are expensive and require complicated devices. Now, an app is able to screen for anemia without even drawing blood. It’s the brainchild of Rob Mannino, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has anemia himself. He wanted to fight the disease, so he teamed up with Wilbur Lam, an associate professor at Emory. Recognizing the number of...

Superhuman
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Watch Now
Superhuman
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Your T cells already know how to kill cancer. These doctors can train them to hunt it down.
Watch Now

Josh Feldman was on his honeymoon when he felt a lump on his neck. Returning home after the best month of his life, his doctor gave him the news: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. There was no cure, and it was about to get much worse. After multiple rounds of chemotherapy failed to stop his tumors from growing, Josh went to see Dr. John Timmerman, an oncologist at UCLA who is trying something different, known as immunotherapy. This...

DIY
The Homemade Internet Service
The Homemade Internet Service
Watch Now
DIY
The Homemade Internet Service
We all get tired of our internet service. But what if instead of just restarting your router, you started your own internet service?
Watch Now

We all get tired of our internet service. Too expensive, too slow, too many lost signals. But what if instead of just restarting your router, you started your own internet service? Sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what one man did.

Coded
Hacker Wins Election As Pirate Party Leader
Hacker Wins Election As Pirate Party Leader
Watch Now
Coded
Hacker Wins Election As Pirate Party Leader
Iceland's Pirate Party is trying to use a hacker mindset to improve their country and the world.
Watch Now

In the wake of the Panama Papers hacking scandal, computer programmer Smári McCarthy decided he needed to apply his "hacking for good" philosophy to politics. As a member of the Pirate Party - a political party formed around the concept of extreme transparency - Smári was elected to Parliament in Iceland and is trying to use a hacker mindset to improve his country and the world.

On the Cusp
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
On the Cusp
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
From virtual hearts to immersive battlefields, doctors and scientists are using virtual reality to transform medicine
By Brandon Stewart

From virtual hearts to immersive battlefields, doctors and scientists are using virtual reality to transform medicine

Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Why we should teach kids how to hack and encourage them to use their new-found talents for good.
By Michael O'Shea

Why we should teach kids how to hack and encourage them to use their new-found talents for good.