Several studies have shown associations between shorter telomere length in blood and weakened immune function, susceptibility to infections, and increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Recently, we have shown that malaria accelerates telomere attrition in blood cells and shortens lifespan in birds. However, the impact of infections on telomere attrition in different body tissues within an individual is unknown. Here, we tested whether malarial infection leads to parallel telomere shortening in blood and tissue samples from different organs. We experimentally infected siskins (Spinus spinus) with the avian malaria parasite Plasmodium ashfordi, and used real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to measure telomere length in control and experimentally infected siskins. We found that experimentally infected birds showed faster telomere attrition in blood over the course of infection compared with control individuals (repeatedly measured over 105 days post-infection (DPI)). Shorter telomeres were also found in the tissue of all six major organs investigated (liver, lungs, spleen, heart, kidney, and brain) in infected birds compared with controls at 105 DPI. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study showing that an infectious disease results in synchronous telomere shortening in the blood and tissue cells of internal organs within individuals, implying that the infection induces systemic stress. Our results have far-reaching implications for understanding how the short-term effects of an infection can translate into long-term costs, such as organ dysfunction, degenerative diseases, and ageing.
- Received June 4, 2016.
- Accepted July 11, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.