The shortest telomeres drive karyotype evolution in transformed cells
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Maintenance of telomeres is essential for chromosome stability. In the absence of telomerase, telomeres shorten with cell division until they approach a stability threshold, at which point cells enter senescence. When senescence-signaling pathways are inactive, further telomere shortening leads to chromosome instability characterized by telomeric fusions and breakage-fusion-bridge (BFB) cycles. Since the distribution of telomere lengths among chromosome extremities is heterogeneous, we wondered about the impact of such variability on the stability of particular chromosome arms. We correlated the initial length of individual telomeres in telomerase-negative-transformed cells with the stability of the corresponding chromosome arms during the precrisis period. We show that arms carrying the shortest telomeres are the first to become unstable and this instability affects the chromosome homologues with shorter telomeres almost exclusively. The analysis of several postcrisis cell populations, which had stabilized their telomeres by re-expressing telomerase, showed that the karyotypic outcome is strongly influenced by the initial telomere length heterogeneity. The timing of telomerase re-expression also seems to play a role in limiting the extent of karyotypic changes, probably by reducing the frequency of telomeric fusions and hence BFB. Since the distribution of telomere lengths within somatic cells is proper to every individual, our results predict that the risk for a particular chromosome arm of becoming unstable early in tumorigenesis will differ between individuals and contribute directly to the heterogeneity of chromosome aberrations found in tumors.
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