The Multiple Facets of Peto's Paradox: A Life-History Model for the Evolution of Cancer Suppression

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Jul 19;370(1673):20140221. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0221.


Large animals should have higher lifetime probabilities of cancer than small animals because each cell division carries an attendant risk of mutating towards a tumour lineage. However, this is not observed--a (Peto's) paradox that suggests large and/or long-lived species have evolved effective cancer suppression mechanisms. Using the Euler-Lotka population model, we demonstrate the evolutionary value of cancer suppression as determined by the 'cost' (decreased fecundity) of suppression verses the 'cost' of cancer (reduced survivorship). Body size per se will not select for sufficient cancer suppression to explain the paradox. Rather, cancer suppression should be most extreme when the probability of non-cancer death decreases with age (e.g. alligators), maturation is delayed, fecundity rates are low and fecundity increases with age. Thus, the value of cancer suppression is predicted to be lowest in the vole (short lifespan, high fecundity) and highest in the naked mole rat (long lived with late female sexual maturity). The life history of pre-industrial humans likely selected for quite low levels of cancer suppression. In modern humans that live much longer, this level results in unusually high lifetime cancer risks. The model predicts a lifetime risk of 49% compared with the current empirical value of 43%.

Keywords: Peto's paradox; cancer; cancer suppression adaptation; life-history evolution; life-history trade-off; wildlife cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arvicolinae
  • Biological Evolution
  • Female
  • Fertility
  • Humans
  • Longevity
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mole Rats
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Probability
  • Risk Factors