Normal human cells will not divide forever in culture. After a defined number of passages, every culture enters a viable non-dividing state termed senescence. This led to the proposal that the progressive accumulation of senescent cells contributes to (but does not exclusively cause) the aging process. Data now suggest that cell senescence, like apoptosis, occurs as an anti-cancer mechanism. In vivo, extremely low rates of division occur over very long periods of time. Thus, by the end of its lifespan, an organism has performed a surprisingly large amount of cell turnover. In a normal culture the fraction of senescent cells increases smoothly with proliferation in vitro. This process can be accurately modelled by the progressive loss of telomeric sequence (proposed as a counting mechanism for senescence). Telomere length is usually maintained by the enzyme telomerase (repressed in many human tissues). Re-introduction of telomerase prevents the onset of senescence. However, data suggest that a separate telomere-independent pathway exists. Evidence that this pathway is present in humans is now emerging.

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