Telomeres are specialized structures at chromosome ends that are thought to function as buffers against chromosome fusion. Several studies suggest that telomere shortening may render chromosomes fusigenic. We used a novel quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization procedure to estimate telomere length in individual mammalian chromosomes, and G-banding and chromosome painting techniques to determine chromosome fusigenic potential. All analysed Chinese hamster and mouse cell lines exhibited shorter telomeres at short chromosome arms than at long chromosome arms. However, no clear link between short telomeres and chromosome fusigenic potential was observed, i.e. frequencies of telomeric associations were higher in cell lines exhibiting longer telomeres. We speculate that chromosome fusigenic potential in mammalian cell lines may be determined not only by telomere length but also by the status of telomere chromatin structure. This is supported by the observed presence of chromatin filaments linking telomeres in Chinese hamster chromosomes and of multibranched chromosomes oriented end-to-end in the murine severe combined immunodeficient (SCID) cell line. Multibranched chromosomes are the hallmark of the human ICF (Immune deficiency, Centromeric instability, Facial abnormalities) syndrome, characterized by alterations in heterochromatin structure.
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Acknowledgements. This work was supported by a grant from the Westlakes Research Institute.