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Telomeres, the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes, have been the subject of intense investigation over the last decade. As telomere dysfunction has been associated with ageing and developing cancer, understanding the exact mechanisms regulating telomere structure and function is essential for the prevention and treatment of human cancers and age-related diseases. The mechanisms by which cells maintain telomere lengthening involve either telomerase or the alternative lengthening of the telomere pathway, although specific mechanisms of the latter and the relationship between the two are as yet unknown. Many cellular factors directly (TRF1/TRF2) and indirectly (shelterin-complex, PinX, Apollo and tankyrase) interact with telomeres, and their interplay influences telomere structure and function. One challenge comes from the observation that many DNA damage response proteins are stably associated with telomeres and contribute to several other aspects of telomere function. This review focuses on the different components involved in telomere maintenance and their role in telomere length homeostasis. Special attention is paid to understanding how these telomere-associated factors, and mainly those involved in double-strand break repair, perform their activities at the telomere ends. Copyright © 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.