Researchers create DNA 'nanocircles' to probe the mystery of aging in human cells

A new form of nanotechnology developed at Stanford University may lead to a better understanding of the life and death of human cells.

Writing in the Nov. 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Stanford researchers described how newly created circles of synthetic DNA - called "nanocircles" - could help researchers learn more about the aging process in cells.

"In the long run, we have this dream of making laboratory cells live longer," said Eric Kool, a professor of chemistry at Stanford and co-author of the PNAS study. "We thought of this pie-in-the-sky idea several years ago, and we've been working toward it ever since."

All cells carry chromosomes - large molecules of double-stranded DNA that are capped off by single-strand sequences called telomeres. In their study, the research team successfully used synthetic nanocircles to lengthen telomeres in the test tube.

"The telomere is the time clock that tells a cell how long it can divide before it dies," Kool noted. "The consensus is that the length of the telomere helps determine how long a cell population will live, so if you can make telomeres longer, you could have some real biological effect on the lifespan of the cell. These results suggest the possibility that, one day, we may be able to make cells live longer by this approach."

Cellular death
Human telomeres consist of chemical clusters called "base pairs" that are strung together in a specific sequence known by the initials TTAGGG. This sequence is repeated several thousand times along the length of the telomere. But each time a cell divides during its normal lifecycle, its telomeres are shortened by about 100 base pairs until all cell division finally comes to a halt.

"Suddenly there's a switch in the cell that says, 'It's time to stop dividing,'" Kool explained. "It's still not completely clear how that works, but it is clear that once telomeres reach the critically short length of 3

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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