BACKGROUND: Malignant cells must maintain their telomeres, but genetic mechanisms responsible for telomere maintenance in tumors have only recently been discovered. In particular, mutations of the telomere binding proteins alpha thalassemia/mental retardation syndrome X-linked (ATRX) or death-domain associated protein (DAXX) have been shown to underlie a telomere maintenance mechanism not involving telomerase (alternative lengthening of telomeres), and point mutations in the promoter of the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene increase telomerase expression and have been shown to occur in melanomas. METHODS: To further define the tumor types in which TERT plays a role, we surveyed 1,230 tumors of 60 different types. We also analyzed the relationship between median overall survival (OS) of patients with IDH1/2 and TERT promoter mutations in a panel of 473 adult gliomas with the hypothesis that genetic signatures capable of distinguishing among several types of gliomas could be established providing clinically relevant information that can serve as an adjunct to histopathological diagnosis. RESULTS: We found that tumors could be divided into types with low and high frequencies of TERT promoter mutations. The nine TERT-high tumor types almost always originated in tissues with relatively low rates of self renewal, including melanomas, liposarcomas, hepatocellular carcinomas, urothelial carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas of the tongue, medulloblastomas, and subtypes of gliomas. TERT and ATRX mutations were mutually exclusive, suggesting that these two genetic mechanisms confer equivalent selective growth advantages. We found that mutations in the TERT promoter occurred in 74.2% of glioblastomas (GBM), but occurred in a minority of Grade II-III astrocytomas (18.2%). In contrast, IDH1/2 mutations were observed in 78.4% of Grade II-III astrocytomas, but were uncommon in primary GBM. In oligodendrogliomas, TERT promoter and IDH1/2 mutations co-occurred in 79% of cases. Patients whose Grade III-IV gliomas exhibit TERT promoter mutations alone predominately have primary GBMs associated with poor median OS rates (11.5 months). Patients whose gliomas exhibit IDH1/2 mutations alone predominately have astrocytic morphologies and exhibit a median OS of 57 months while patients whose tumors exhibit both TERT promoter and IDH1/2 mutations predominately exhibit oligodendroglial morphologies and exhibit median OS of 125 months. CONCLUSIONS: In addition to their implications for understanding the relationship between telomeres and tumorigenesis, TERT mutations provide a biomarker that may aid in the classification and prognostication of brain tumors. SECONDARY CATEGORY: Tumor Biology.