It is now well established that the canonical function of telomerase protects the telomere repeats from erosion and the consequent induction of replicative senescence or apoptosis. In the absence of key cell cycle checkpoint proteins, the canonical function of telomerase also prevents chromosome fusions and immortalizes human cells. The canonical function of telomerase requires both the telomerase reverse transcriptase enzyme (TERT) which adds telomere (TTAGGG) repeats to the chromosome ends and the telomerase RNA component (TERC), which provides the template for TERT. However, there is growing evidence that telomerase has other (non-canonical) functions. These functions can be divided further into those that require telomerase activity but not telomere lengthening (non-canonical I or NC I) and those that require neither telomerase activity nor telomere lengthening (non-canonical II or NC II). NC I functions are associated with the induction of neoplasia in both epidermis and mammary gland, the correct response to DNA damage, and insensitivity to transforming growth factor beta. In contrast, NC II functions are not sufficient for the induction of neoplasia and are associated with the activation of the WNT and MYC signaling pathways in keratinocytes and a more general resistance to the induction of apoptosis by a variety of stimuli. The overexpression of either TERT or TERC appears to be capable of providing NC I functions but NC II functions require neither TERC nor the integrity of the TERT catalytic site. The molecular mechanisms underpinning both NC I and NC II are largely obscure but transcriptional profile changes have been reported by some groups. In this article, we will discuss the proposed mechanisms of NC I and NC II and their relevance to normal and neoplastic cell functions.
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