The human body is composed, in part, of miniscule structures called chromosomes. The chromosomes contain all of the genetic information — the predetermined traits that are passed from parents to children — in our bodies. The combinations of genes, the carriers of genetic information, determine every person's sex, hair color, eye color, and other characteristics. The end of each chromosome is called a telomere.
The telomere functions as a protector to the end of the chromosome. As we grow older, cells split in order to copy themselves and preserve genetic information. This splitting of cells is called mitosis. The job of the telomere is to ensure that there is not too much genetic information lost each time mitosis occurs and a cell splits. As the cells split, the telomere shortens slightly. Some telomere is lost at each split, but it prevents the cells from replicating if a minimum amount of remaining genetic information is reached. Once cells can no longer reproduce, they die. Telomeres can also prevent chromosomes from connecting to each other. In essence, the telomeres control the process by which each cell ages. In turn, the way cells age affect the deterioration of the whole body.
Some telomere actions are controlled by an enzyme called telomerase. Enzymes are substances — usually proteins or RNA — that cause chemical reactions. Telomerase adds information to chromosomes and promotes growth and division in the cell.
Many scientists believe that the action of telomerase in the telomeres hold the answers to some medical problems. Since there has been a large amount of telomerase detected in quickly growing cancer cells, they believe inhibiting the telomerase could inhibit the growth of cancer. In addition, cell reproduction and the behavior of telomeres in response to the presence of telomerase may be closely tied to the process of aging. Slowing the aging process at a cellular level could reduce the problems associated with growing older. Telomeres may also hold the secret to cell regrowth for treating other medical conditions.