During the Torchwood: Miracle Day second episode, one of the experiments that doctors are doing to investigate the lack of death is to monitor some cells. They examine the length of the telomeres, which are a way to track aging, as they shorten as you get older. My question is related to the science here. They measure the telomeres once a day for two days, and from that are able to measure a difference in their length. Is that remotely possible to detect telomere shortening over such a small period of time, or is this a case of bad science in fiction?

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    Seems like there should be a science and/or biology StackExchange site for these types of questions, but I didn't see one. (mod edit: there is now)
    – Xantec
    Jul 17, 2011 at 4:29
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    It depends on how fast the cells in question replicate. Telomeres shorten when cells replicate and cells can only replicate about 40 to 60 times during their lifetime (the Hayflick limit). If the cells in question replicate at least once during those two days, you can find a small difference. I have no idea how fast cells replicate or how long they live, but given that, on humans, on each organism billions of cells die each day, I wouldn't be surprised if that was true. Jul 17, 2011 at 22:53
  • Skeptics.SE might be a good holding-area for general fact-based questions (answers are required to be sourced, for instance.) Jul 18, 2011 at 19:30
  • @Xantec @Joe I've made a question over on meta about this. Link
    – user1027
    Jul 18, 2011 at 19:46
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    There is a related question about using telomeres as a measure of age on Biology.SE.
    – user496
    Jan 26, 2012 at 20:37

1 Answer 1


The answer is realistically no. It is true that each time the DNA of a cell replicates that the telomeres shorten just a little bit, but there are mechanisms in place that cells use to lengthen these telomeres and counteract the shortening effect.

The average human cell divides every 10 hours, so say 5 times in 2 days. Each replication shortens the telomeres by 4 bases. That's ~20 bases in 2 days. Given that DNA is billions of bases long, that's a rather small %. Taking into account that there is variation in telomere length between any two people, any two of their cells, and any of their chromosomes, the fact that there are 23 chromosomes, and that they are being lengthened at the same time as well, it is unlikely that with all this variation one would be able to tell how much shorter the cell gets, but like anything under the right circumstances it could be possible. If you made sure it was a single chromosome and you managed to look at each chromosome individually and a ton of other things then I guess you could.

Also, it would take some time (at least a week or so) to figure out the exact length of telomeres in order to be precise enough to keep the error in the results to under 5% (generally the standard to know your results are valid).