Evolutionary mechanisms and diversity in cancer

Adv Cancer Res. 2011;112:217-53. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-387688-1.00008-9.


The recently introduced genome theory of cancer evolution provides a new framework for evolutionary studies on cancer. In particular, the established relationship between the large number of individual molecular mechanisms and the general evolutionary mechanism of cancer calls upon a change in our strategies that have been based on the characterization of common cancer gene mutations and their defined pathways. To further explain the significance of the genome theory of cancer evolution, a brief review will be presented describing the various attempts to illustrate the evolutionary mechanism of cancer, followed by further analysis of some key components of somatic cell evolution, including the diversity of biological systems, the multiple levels of information systems and control systems, the two phases (the punctuated or discontinuous phase and gradual Darwinian stepwise phase) and dynamic patterns of somatic cell evolution where genome replacement is the driving force. By linking various individual molecular mechanisms to the level of genome population diversity and tumorigenicity, the general mechanism of cancer has been identified as the evolutionary mechanism of cancer, which can be summarized by the following three steps including stress-induced genome instability, population diversity or heterogeneity, and genome-mediated macroevolution. Interestingly, the evolutionary mechanism is equal to the collective aggregate of all individual molecular mechanisms. This relationship explains why most of the known molecular mechanisms can contribute to cancer yet there is no single dominant mechanism for the majority of clinical cases. Despite the fact that each molecular mechanism can serve as a system stress and initiate the evolutionary process, to achieve cancer, multiple cycles of genome-mediated macroevolution are required and are a stochastically determined event. Finally, the potential clinical implications of the evolutionary mechanism of cancer are briefly reviewed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Variation / genetics*
  • Genomic Instability*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*