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Extent and variability of interstitial telomeric sequences and their effects on estimates of telomere length


Correspondence: Carol M. Vleck, Fax: 515 294-1337; E-mail:


Telomeres often shorten with time, although this varies between tissues, individuals and species, and their length and/or rate of change may reflect fitness and rate of senescence. Measurement of telomeres is increasingly important to ecologists, yet the relative merits of different methods for estimating telomere length are not clear. In particular the extent to which interstitial telomere sequences (ITSs), telomere repeats located away from chromosomes ends, confound estimates of telomere length is unknown. Here we present a method to estimate the extent of ITS within a species and variation among individuals. We estimated the extent of ITS by comparing the amount of label hybridized to in-gel telomere restriction fragments (TRF) before and after the TRFs were denatured. This protocol produced robust and repeatable estimates of the extent of ITS in birds. In five species, the amount of ITS was substantial, ranging from 15% to 40% of total telomeric sequence DNA. In addition, the amount of ITS can vary significantly among individuals within a species. Including ITSs in telomere length calculations always underestimated telomere length because most ITSs are shorter than most telomeres. The magnitude of that error varies with telomere length and is larger for longer telomeres. Estimating telomere length using methods that incorporate ITSs, such as Southern blot TRF and quantitative PCR analyses reduces an investigator's power to detect difference in telomere dynamics between individuals or over time within an individual.