The telomere lengthening conundrum—artifact or biology?

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Recent longitudinal studies of age-dependent leukocyte telomere length (LTL) attrition have reported that variable proportions of individuals experience LTL lengthening. Often, LTL lengthening has been taken at face value, and authors have speculated about the biological causation of this finding. Based on empirical data and theoretical considerations, we show that regardless of the method used to measure telomere length (Southern blot or quantitative polymerase chain reaction-based methods), measurement error of telomere length and duration of follow-up explain almost entirely the absence of age-dependent LTL attrition in longitudinal studies. We find that LTL lengthening is far less frequent in studies with long follow-up periods and those that used a high-precision Southern blot method (as compared with quantitative polymerase chain reaction determination, which is associated with larger laboratory error). We conclude that the LTL lengthening observed in longitudinal studies is predominantly, if not entirely, an artifact of measurement error, which is exacerbated by short follow-up periods. We offer specific suggestions for design of longitudinal studies of LTL attrition to diminish this artifact.

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