01/10/2012 12:08 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

Telomere Length Tied To Longevity In Bird Study

Talking parrots are nothing new, but what can Zebra finches tell us about how long an individual lives? Maybe more than you might think.

In a provocative new study from Scotland, researchers showed that the length of a finch's telomeres - protective "caps" on the ends of strands of DNA - is a reliable indicator of how long that individual will live. The finches used in the study (an Australian species known as Taeniophgia guttata) typically live from one to nine years, and those with the longest telomeres tended to live the longest.

Telomeres have been likened to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces and are thought to protect DNA strands from "fraying" over time. Telomeres tend to shorten when cells divide, and scientists have long eyed a possible connection between telomere length and longevity.

Maria Blasco, a Spanish telomere researcher who was not involved in the study, called the finding "important," telling Scientific American that "It's the first time that normal differences in telomere length have been shown to be predictive of longevity."

Important for finches, sure. But what does the finding - published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - say about longevity in humans?

Study author Pat Monaghan cautioned that the finding doesn't necessarily mean that telomere length in humans is tied to potential lifespan. Duncan Baird, a telomere researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, agreed. "It's not going to be possible to translate this immediately to the human situation, in which you have a long-lived species with a heterogeneous environment," he told "That''s quite different."

What's next? Monaghan said the next step will be to find out what explains the variation in telomere length.

"We now need to know more about how early life conditions can influence the pattern of telomere loss and the relative importance of inherited and environmental factors," she told the BBC.