Sheila A. Stewart - Departments of Cell Biology and Physiology and of Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri 63110, and Robert A. Weinberg - Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142. Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol. 2006;22:531-57
The cell phenotypes of senescence and crisis operate to circumscribe the proliferative potential of mammalian cells, suggesting that both are capable of operating in vivo to suppress the formation of tumors. The key regulators of these phenotypes are the telomeres, which are located at the ends of chromosomes and operate to protect the chromosomes from end-to-end fusions. Telomere erosion below a certain length can trigger crisis. The relationship between senescence and telomere function is more complex, however: Cell-physiological stresses as well as dysfunction of the complex molecular structures at the ends of telomeric DNA can trigger senescence. Cells can escape senescence by inactivating the Rb and p53 tumor suppressor proteins and can surmount crisis by activating a telomere maintenance mechanism. The resulting cell immortalization is an essential component of the tumorigenic phenotype of human cancer cells. Here we discuss how telomeres are monitored and maintained and how loss of a functional telomere influences biological functions as diverse as aging and carcinogenesis.