Researchers have discovered a surprising function of telomeres. 

Telomeres, the protective structures at the end of chromosomes, have been known for over 80 years. 

However, recent research suggests that these tiny structures have more surprising functions than previously thought. 

Telomeres play a crucial role in carrying our genetic information, but lose their protective qualities with age, leading to cell damage and death. 

The discovery of a molecule of RNA linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) revealed that telomeres can produce proteins, something previously thought impossible due to their simplicity.

Researchers identified a molecule of RNA similar to the one produced by telomeres and wondered whether the same protein-producing mechanism could be at play in both molecules. 

After conducting further investigation, they found that telomere DNA could instruct cells to produce two signalling proteins, VR (valine-arginine) and GL (glycine-leucine), which could pass on messages for biological functions impacting the body's wellbeing. 

Further analysis revealed that VR was found in higher levels in some human cancer cells and in cells of people with diseases related to defective telomeres, such as inflammatory bowel disease.

As humans age, the amount of VR and GL in their blood might steadily rise, potentially providing a new biomarker for biological age. 

Inflammation may also trigger the production of these proteins. 

The researchers believe that developing a simple blood test for these proteins could inform us of our biological age and provide warnings of issues such as cancer or inflammation. 

“Discovering that telomeres encode two novel signalling proteins will change our understanding of cancer, ageing, and how cells communicate with other cells,” says molecular biologist Jack Griffith from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The research has been published in PNAS.