About six weeks ago, I watched an interview on Fighting Words featuring Randy Couture.
At about 3:20, he starts talking about being subjected to a scientific test, involving something called telomeres, which measured his age on a genetic level. According to him (and his doctor, presumably), the test revealed him to be about 32 years-old. Randy Couture was 46 or 47 years-old at the time of this interview and still, somehow, actively competitive in the heavyweight division of the UFC at its highest levels (or almost).
In the most fleeting and general sense, I had heard the word ‘telomere’ before and knew they were somehow related to aging.1 But what the hell was Couture talking about with this test??? I had to know!
To start from the beginning, and work our way forward from there, a gene is a unit of molecular heredity.2 In your genes is stored the information on how to both make and maintain the cells of which you are composed. Humans have approximately 20,000 genes, all arranged on 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each end of a chromosome is capped with a telomere.3 Why?
“During cell division, enzymes that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of the chromosomes. If the cells divided without telomeres, they would lose the end of their chromosomes, and necessarily the information they contain. The telomeres are the disposable buffers blocking the ends of the chromosomes, [and] are consumed during cell division…” – Wikipedia
Let me rephrase the fancy-pants talk. Because of the way chromosomes are copied, the end bits get cut off. But remember that chromosomes are groups of genes. The ends can not just be haphazardly hacked off, lest you lose some snippet of important genetic information. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your ‘Dancing Ability Gene’ reads “Patrick Swayze.”
After a cell division, without telomeres, the last name could get snipped and it could just read “Patrick.”
And while you probably already got the girl, Mr. Dirty Dancing, your children almost assuredly going to suffer from having the dancing ability of a pink, mentally-handicapped (?) starfish. Were this to happen, your lineage will end with your children – I promise you.
Alright, alright, it’s important to preserve genetic information, you get it; but what about Randy Couture? Well, a telomere is going to become progressively shorter as we continue to age (as our cells continue to make copies of themselves, and snip away at the telomere in the process).
If a few things were known on the outset of the measurement, finding out someone’s telomere length would give you an idea of how much aging they have done on a cellular level.5
What was the result of his length-measuring test? According to Couture, he, then, had the cellular age of someone approximately 32 years-old. It’s probably glazing over a few too many complications to say he was 32, but I was nevertheless staggered to hear the result. His ability to perform at nearly the highest levels in his middle forties is testament to some fundamental difference between him and everyone else still competing at that age, after all.
Anyway. I was fascinated by what he said (though he did not explain it quite right, if anybody caught that), and thought I’d share it with my audience. Thanks.
1. As I wrote this sentence, it suddenly occurred to me that I remembered where it was that I first heard the word. There’s a video on youtube with a yellow puppet who rants about stupid people/things on youtube. He was ranting about the loathsome Ben Stein, here. Actually, it was a rant about the inane Ray Comfort. But the rant was a little racier, so I leave it up to my audience to look it up.
2. Please forgive the nebulous-sounding definition. There are exceptions to almost everything in biology. Presumably, this is the best way to capture what it is that a gene does without getting caught up in the exceptions.
3. They are aptly named, as I found out. Telos, τέλοϛ, is from the Greek, meaning ‘end.’
5. I’m speaking speculatively here. But my guess is it would be something like driving somewhere. If you knew ‘how fast you were going,’ ‘for how long you have been driving,’ and ‘the distance between the point of departure and the destination,’ then I could tell you where you were supposed to be at any given time.