Telomere dynamics

Telomeres are repetitive sections of DNA at the end of chromosomes. They are found in virtually every animal species and are thought to play a profoundly important role in maintaining chromosomal integrity. Telomeric sequence is lost at every cell division, and also in response to certain types of cellular stress, but can be replenished through the action of the enzyme telomerase. There is dramatic variation in telomere length and telomerase expression across species, among individuals within species, and among tissue types within individuals. Evidence is mounting that average telomere length measured in blood samples may predict health outcomes, and reflect past environmental or psychosocial stress in humans and other vertebrates.

We study telomere dynamics in domestic and wild ruminant species with the aim of understanding the genetic and environmental causes of variation in telomere length among individuals, and the consequences of this variation for health and fitness. Currently, our main projects are:

  • Lifelong telomere dynamics and fitness in wild Soay sheep: We use longitudinal blood samples and data collected over 30 years as part of the long-term St Kilda Soay sheep project to ask how environment and genetic variation influence leukocyte telomere lengths under natural conditions. This project runs in collaboration with Josephine Pemberton (Edinburgh), Lea Harrington (Montreal), Duncan Baird (Cardiff) and Tom McNeilly (Moredun).
  • Telomere length as a biomarker of functional longevity in dairy cattle. In collaboration with Georgios Banos, Mike Coffey (SRUC), and Bruce Whitelaw (Roslin) we are measuring leukocyte telomere length in blood  samples collected longitudinally from the Royal Crichton dairy herd to determine whether telomere length predicts health or productivity outcomes in dairy cattle.
  • Leverhulme Trust-funded Interdisciplinary Network on Diversity in Telomere Dynamics: With Pat Monaghan (Glasgow) and Mark Haussmann (Bucknell) I help co-ordinate meetings of this international network, which  aims to develop our understanding of the evolutionary, epidemiological and  molecular causes of variation in telomere lengths among species and individuals.

Recent publications:

Fairlie J, Holland R, Pilkington JG, Pemberton JM, Harrington L & Nussey DH (2016) Life-long leukocyte telomere dynamics and survival in a free-living mammal. Aging Cell. On-line early. [Download here].

Nussey, D.H., Baird, D., Barrett B., Boner, W., Fairlie, J., Gemmell, N., Hartmann, N., Horn, T., Haussmann, M., Olsson, M., Turbill, C., Verhulst, S., Zahn, S. & Monaghan, P. (2014) Measuring telomere length and telomere dynamics in evolutionary biology and ecology. Methods in Ecology and Evolution5, 299-310. [Download here]