At the start of a recent Dilbert strip, I was surprised, indeed intrigued, to find the Pointy-Haired Boss referring to the sophisticated phenomenon of telomeres, which are the repetitive DNA sequences found at both ends of our chromosomes. After all, it was only in 2009 that the Australian-born biologist Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded (along with two colleagues) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the way in which telomeres "protect" a chromosome whenever it replicates.
The boss's allusion to "short telomeres" evokes an hypothesis that has become widespread (although not yet fully confirmed) at the level of afflictions such as cancer and aging. The general idea is that a fragment at the extremity of a telomere is "sacrificed" during cell replication, and this insignificant destruction means that relatively important fragments further down the line will not be damaged, as they would be if the protective telomere "cap" were not present. In a healthy individual, this partial destruction of one end of the telomere is harmless, since it can rebuild itself later on. On the other hand, if an individual's telomeres have been reduced to an abnormally short length, then that person is a likely candidate—according to the above-mentioned hypothesis—for cancer and senescence.
I was surprised by the boss's knowledge of modern genetics. I didn't know that a narrow-minded man of his kind would have heard of telemeres. Maybe, if I had the habit of reading popular-science magazines, or stuff about health, I would have realized that telomeres have indeed become a household word. Incidentally, in the remaining frames of the Dilbert strip, the boss informs the job candidate that short telomeres are a sign that the individual in question values work above physical well-being.
Another thing that intrigues me in this affair is the question of how an ordinary individual might learn that his telomeres are abnormally short. I've had my Y-chromosomes analyzed in a genealogical context [see description], but that trivial operation taught me nothing whatsoever concerning the length of my telomeres. Maybe individuals who have had their DNA examined in a wider medical context end up acquiring information about the length of their telomeres. In any case, I intend to carry on reading Dilbert comics in the hope of broadening my awareness of the marvels of modern medicine.