Tumor progression: chance and necessity in Darwinian and Lamarckian somatic (mutationless) evolution

Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2012 Sep;110(1):69-86. doi: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2012.05.001. Epub 2012 May 11.


Current investigation of cancer progression towards increasing malignancy focuses on the molecular pathways that produce the various cancerous traits of cells. Their acquisition is explained by the somatic mutation theory: tumor progression is the result of a neo-Darwinian evolution in the tissue. Herein cells are the units of selection. Random genetic mutations permanently affecting these pathways create malignant cell phenotypes that are selected for in the disturbed tissue. However, could it be that the capacity of the genome and its gene regulatory network to generate the vast diversity of cell types during development, i.e., to produce inheritable phenotypic changes without mutations, is harnessed by tumorigenesis to propel a directional change towards malignancy? Here we take an encompassing perspective, transcending the orthodoxy of molecular carcinogenesis and review mechanisms of somatic evolution beyond the Neo-Darwinian scheme. We discuss the central concept of "cancer attractors" - the hidden stable states of gene regulatory networks normally not occupied by cells. Noise-induced transitions into such attractors provide a source for randomness (chance) and regulatory constraints (necessity) in the acquisition of novel expression profiles that can be inherited across cell divisions, and hence, can be selected for. But attractors can also be reached in response to environmental signals - thus offering the possibility for inheriting acquired traits that can also be selected for. Therefore, we face the possibility of non-genetic (mutation-independent) equivalents to both Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution which may jointly explain the arrow of change pointing toward increasing malignancy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Progression
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Stochastic Processes