Tumors of the Elder Gods

Cancer resembles life 1 billion years ago, say astrobiologists

"'Advanced' metazoan life of the form we now know, i.e. organisms with cell specialization and organ differentiation, was preceded by colonies of eukaryotic cells in which cellular cooperation was fairly rudimentary, consisting of networks of adhering cells exchanging information chemically, and forming self-organized assemblages with only a moderate division of labor," they write.

According to Lineweaver, this suggests that cancer is an atavism, or an evolutionary throwback.

“We think that the tumours that develop in cancer patients today take the same form as these simple cellular structures did more than a billion years ago,” he said.

In a way, the genes that controlled this early multi-cellular form of life are like a computer operating system's 'safe mode', and when there are failures or mutations in the more recent genes that manage the way cells specialise and interact to form the complex life of today, then the earlier level of programming takes over.

Their notion is in contrast to a prevailing theory that cancer cells are 'rogue' cells that evolve rapidly within the body, overcoming the normal slew of cellular defences.

However, Davies and Lineweaver point out that cancer cells are highly cooperative with each other, if competing with the host's cells. This suggests a pre-existing complexity that is reminiscent of early multicellular life.

They also point out that cancers' manifold survival mechanisms are predictable, and unlikely to emerge spontaneously through evolution within each individual in such a consistent way.

The good news is that this means combating cancer is not necessarily as complex as if the cancers were rogue cells evolving new and novel defence mechanisms within the body.

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3 Responses:

  1. AM says:

    It is interesting that some people thought that cancer was a gain in information as opposed to a loss of information. I only graduated in 2005 but cancer was always described as a loss of cell cycle regulation instead of a gain of some new information.

    • hattifattener says:

      I think the competing theory is loss of cell cycle regulation followed by rapid evolution of rudimentary cooperation.

  2. Daen de Leon says:

    I'd always kind of assumed it was that way. Oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes and the regulatory networks between them, including apoptotic mechanisms, are numerous and rooted in metazoan genomes. The pathways which can lead to cancer are not an aberration per se; they are the ancient foundations upon which modern metazoan life has been built.