Telomerase synthesizes telomeric DNA by copying the template sequence of its own RNA component. In Tetrahymena thermophila and yeast (G. Yu, J. D. Bradley, L. D. Attardi, and E. H. Blackburn, Nature 344:126-131, 1990; M. McEachern and E. H. Blackburn, Nature 376:403-409, 1995), mutations in the template domain of this RNA result in synthesis of mutant telomeres and in impaired cell growth and survival. We have investigated whether mutant telomerase affects the proliferative potential and viability of immortal human cells. Plasmids encoding mutant or wild-type template RNAs (hTRs) of human telomerase and the neomycin resistance gene were transfected into human cells to generate stable transformants. Expression of mutant hTR resulted in the appearance of mutant telomerase activity and in the synthesis of mutant telomeres. Transformed cells were not visibly affected in their growth and viability when grown as mass populations. However, a reduction in plating efficiency and growth rate and an increase in the number of senescent cells were detected in populations with mutant telomeres by colony-forming assays. These results suggest that the presence of mutant telomerase, even if coexpressed with the wild-type enzyme, can be deleterious to cells, likely as a result of the impaired function of hybrid telomeres.