Role of alternative telomere lengthening unmasked in telomerase knock-out mutant plants
Telomeres in many eukaryotes are maintained by telomerase in whose absence telomere shortening occurs. However, telomerase-deficient Arabidopsis thaliana mutants (Attert(-/-)) show extremely low rates of telomere shortening per plant generation (250-500 bp), which does not correspond to the expected outcome of replicative telomere shortening resulting from ca. 1,000 meristem cell divisions per seed-to-seed generation. To investigate the influence of the number of cell divisions per seed-to-seed generation, Attert(-/-) mutant plants were propagated from seeds coming either from the lower-most or the upper-most siliques (L- and U-plants) and the length of their telomeres were followed over several generations. The rate of telomere shortening was faster in U-plants, than in L-plants, as would be expected from their higher number of cell divisions per generation. However, this trend was observed only in telomeres whose initial length is relatively high and the differences decreased with progressive general telomere shortening over generations. But in generation 4, the L-plants frequently show a net telomere elongation, while the U-plants fail to do so. We propose that this is due to the activation of alternative telomere lengthening (ALT), a process which is activated in early embryonic development in both U- and L-plants, but is overridden in U-plants due to their higher number of cell divisions per generation. These data demonstrate what so far has only been speculated, that in the absence of telomerase, the number of cell divisions within one generation influences the control of telomere lengths. These results also reveal a fast and efficient activation of ALT mechanism(s) in response to the loss of telomerase activity and imply that ALT is probably involved also in normal plant development.