The genetic factors that underlie the increasing incidence of diabetes with age are poorly understood. We examined whether telomere length, which is inherited and known to shorten with age, plays a role in the age-dependent increased incidence of diabetes. We show that in mice with short telomeres, insulin secretion is impaired and leads to glucose intolerance despite the presence of an intact β-cell mass. In ex vivo studies, short telomeres induced cell-autonomous defects in β-cells including reduced mitochondrial membrane hyperpolarization and Ca2+ influx which limited insulin release. To examine the mechanism, we looked for evidence of apoptosis but found no baseline increase in β-cells with short telomeres. However, there was evidence of all the hallmarks of senescence including slower proliferation of β-cells and accumulation of p16INK4a. Specifically, we identified gene expression changes in pathways which are essential for Ca2+-mediated exocytosis. We also show that telomere length is additive to the damaging effect of endoplasmic reticulum stress which occurs in the late stages of type 2 diabetes. This additive effect manifests as more severe hyperglycemia in Akita mice with short telomeres which had a profound loss of β-cell mass and increased β-cell apoptosis. Our data indicate that short telomeres can affect β-cell metabolism even in the presence of intact β-cell number, thus identifying a novel mechanism of telomere-mediated disease. They implicate telomere length as a determinant of β-cell function and diabetes pathogenesis
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