Grandfathers and Telomeres

Grandfathers and Telomeres Telomeres appear white in this photo.
Photo Credit: NIH, National Cancer Institute, Hesed Padilla-Nash, Thomas Ried

Men that sire children later in life may pass on an advantage to their grandchildren.


An upside to late fatherhood. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Older fathers may pass on a surprising advantage—not just to their children, but to some grandchildren as well. These descendents tend to have longer telomeres, which are tips on the end of chromosomes that protect DNA. Earlier studies found that children of older fathers have longer telomeres—a trait that promotes longevity and good health. Northwestern University anthropologist Dan Eisenberg and his colleagues have taken that a step further.

We’ve shown that it’s not just the age of the father, but it looks like the age of the paternal grandfather as well.

As to why, Eisenberg says that most cells’ telomeres shorten with age, but those in sperm actually get longer. So older dads may endow their offspring with longer telomeres, which would pass to their sons’ children as well. But he notes that other genetic risks linked to late fatherhood may outweigh this benefit. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

When it comes to conceiving children, women have a limited number of years to do so, while men can become fathers at any age. Because of this, there's been a lot of focus on the genetic risks that increase with a mother's age. However, there's a growing body of evidence that the risk of some genetic and developmental disorders—autism, for example—also increases with the father's age. In other words, just because men can father children indefinitely doesn't mean there's no difference between a 70-year-old dad and a 30-year-old dad.

In contrast to many recent studies, this one looked at a possible advantage of having an older father, and found that it applies to one's paternal grandfather as well. It was already known that both male and  female children of older fathers have longer telomeres in their cells than those born to younger fathers. Telomeres are protective structures on the ends of chromosomes that resemble the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces (technically known as “aglets”). Just as aglets protect the shoelace from fraying, telomeres appear to protect chromosomes from degrading. Telomeres also gradually shorten with age until they disappear, so the longer the telomeres you start with, the longer they'll last. Having long telomeres has generally been associated with a longer and healthier life.

There's one kind of cell, however, that actually develops longer telomeres with age: sperm cells. It's not known why this happens. However, it does mean that an older father's sperm will have longer telomeres than a younger one's, and that telomere length may be passed on to his offspring. 

So why does the paternal grandfather matter? Simply put, if a man has children late in life, he's likely to pass relatively long telomeres on to his sons and daughters. For better or for worse, fathers appear to influence their children's telomere lengths much more than mothers do. Therefore, the sons of an older father may pass on their long telomeres to their offspring, while the daughters would not. 

This effect held regardless of the son's age at fatherhood. In other words, there appear to be at least two key ways to inherit long telomeres: having an older father, and having a father with naturally long telomeres. Having both is doubly advantageous, but having just one or the other still helps.

What's not known is whether the children and grandchildren of older dads are actually healthier or live longer than those of younger fathers. As you heard at the beginning, there are known genetic disadvantages to having an older father, and the telomere advantage may or may not outweigh them.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are telomeres? How do they influence health and longevity?
  2. How do fathers and grandfathers influence telomere length?
  3. Why does this influence come from the male parent?
  4. It's not known whether children of older fathers actually live longer than those of younger ones. How could you find out? What might be some challenges in designing the study, or interpreting the results?

You may want to check out these related resources:

For more dad-related research, see the Science Updates Testosterone and Fatherhood and Fatherly Fish.

Going Further

For Educators

The Science NetLinks lesson From Cell to DNA introduces students to the genetic information stored in DNA within the human cell nucleus.

For more dad-related research, see the Science Update lessons Testosterone and Fatherhood and Fatherly Fish.

Related Resources

Foxes & Lyme Disease
6-12 | Audio
Ozone-Scrubbing Skin
6-12 | Audio
Insect Gears
6-12 | Audio

Did you find this resource helpful?

Science Update Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks