Telomerase is an enzyme activity consisting of a reverse transcriptase called TERT and an RNA component that adds repeats of a DNA sequence (TTAGGG) to the ends of chromosomes, thereby preventing their shortening. Associations between telomerase activity and proliferation and differentiation of neural tumor cells and neural stem cells have been reported, but the role of telomerase in brain development is unknown. We now report analyses of telomerase activity, TERT mRNA levels and levels of mRNAs encoding the telomere-associated proteins TRF1 and TRF2 in three different brain regions (brainstem, hippocampus and cerebral cortex) and the eye of mice at increasing developmental time points. Telomerase activity is high in the brain at embryonic day 13 (E13), declines markedly between E13 and E18, remains at a low level until postnatal day 3 (P3) and becomes undetectable by P10. Surprisingly, the temporal pattern of change in telomerase activity is not paralleled by a decrease in levels of TERT mRNA that remain elevated from E13 to P5 (with fluctuations during this time window that vary among brain regions), and then decrease to a lower level that is maintained into adulthood. TRF1 and TRF2 mRNA levels are relatively constant throughout brain development. Our data are consistent with a role for telomerase activity in proliferation of neural progenitor cells, and further suggest that TERT may play roles in neuronal differentiation and survival. The dissociation between TERT expression and telomerase activity is a novel finding that suggests biological functions for TERT in addition to telomere maintenance.
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