© 2015 The Authors. Aging Cell published by the Anatomical Society and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Telomeres play a fundamental role in the maintenance of genomic integrity at a cellular level, and average leukocyte telomere length (LTL) has been proposed as a biomarker of organismal aging. However, studies tracking LTL across the entire life course of individuals are lacking. Here, we examined lifelong patterns of variation in LTL among four birth cohorts of female Soay sheep (Ovis aries) that were longitudinally monitored and sampled from birth to death. Over the first 4 months of life, there was within-individual loss of LTL, consistent with findings in the human and primate literature, but there was little evidence of consistent LTL loss associated with age after this point. Overall, we observed only weak evidence of individual consistency in LTL across years and over the entire lifespan: Within-individual variation was considerable, and birth cohorts differed markedly in their telomere dynamics. Despite the high levels of LTL variation within the lifetimes of individuals, there remained significant associations between LTL and longevity. Detailed analysis of the longitudinal data set showed that this association was driven by improved survival of individuals with longer LTL over the first 2 years of life. There was no evidence that LTL predicted survival in later adulthood. Our data provide the first evidence from a mammal that LTL can predict mortality and lifespan under natural conditions, and also highlight the potentially dynamic nature of LTL within the lifetimes of individuals experiencing a complex and highly variable environment.