The oldest living organism on Earth is a plant — Methuselah, a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, pictured above) that is more than 5,000 years old. Conversely, animals only live up to a few hundred years. Can we learn something from plants about longevity and stay young forever — or even recapture lost youth?

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded in 2009 “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.” Telomerase was first isolated from a unicellular organism living in pond scum. As it later turned out, telomerase exists in almost all multicellular organisms, including humans, and plays a crucial role in aging and cancer. Scientists have been scrambling to discover ways to utilize telomerase to make human cells immortal.

For the very first time, a study led by the collaborating groups of Julian Chen in Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences and Dorothy Shippen from Texas A&M University has unraveled the detailed structure and function of the RNA component of telomerase enzyme from land plants. The telomerase RNA components from land plants such as the pine tree show the connection between ciliate (pond scum) and human telomerases and offer new insights into the evolution of telomerase in eukaryotes.

This study, “The conserved structure of plant telomerase RNA provides the missing link for an evolutionary pathway from ciliates to humans,” was published Nov. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The ASU team includes Research Assistant Professor Yang Li and doctoral student Dhenugen Logeswaran.

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