While telomerase is expressed in ~90% of primary human tumors, most somatic tissue cells except transiently proliferating stem-like cells do not have detectable telomerase activity (Shay and Wright, 1996; Shay and Wright, 2001). Telomeres progressively shorten with each cell division in normal cells, including proliferating stem-like cells, due to the end replication (lagging strand synthesis) problem and other causes such as oxidative damage, therefore all somatic cells have limited cell proliferation capacity (Hayflick limit) (Hayflick and Moorhead, 1961; Olovnikov, 1973). The progressive telomere shortening eventually leads to growth arrest in normal cells, which is known as replicative senescence (Shay et al., 1991). Once telomerase is activated in cancer cells, telomere length is stabilized by the addition of TTAGGG repeats to the end of chromosomes, thus enabling the limitless continuation of cell division (Shay and Wright, 1996; Shay and Wright, 2001). Therefore, the link between aging and cancer can be partially explained by telomere biology. There are many rapid and convenient methods to study telomere biology such as Telomere Restriction Fragment (TRF), Telomere Repeat Amplification Protocol (TRAP) (Mender and Shay, 2015b) and Telomere dysfunction Induced Foci (TIF) analysis (Mender and Shay, 2015a). In this protocol paper we describe Telomere Restriction Fragment (TRF) analysis to determine average telomeric length of cells.
Telomeric length can be indirectly measured by a technique called Telomere Restriction Fragment analysis (TRF). This technique is a modified Southern blot, which measures the heterogeneous range of telomere lengths in a cell population using the length distribution of the terminal restriction fragments (Harley et al., 1990; Ouellette et al., 2000). This method can be used in eukaryotic cells. The description below focuses on the measurement of human cancer cells telomere length. The principle of this method relies on the lack of restriction enzyme recognition sites within TTAGGG tandem telomeric repeats, therefore digestion of genomic DNA, not telomeric DNA, with a combination of 6 base restriction endonucleases reduces genomic DNA size to less than 800 bp.
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