From humans to hydra: patterns of cancer across the tree of life

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2018 Aug;93(3):1715-1734. doi: 10.1111/brv.12415. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


Cancer is a disease of multicellularity; it originates when cells become dysregulated due to mutations and grow out of control, invading other tissues and provoking discomfort, disability, and eventually death. Human life expectancy has greatly increased in the last two centuries, and consequently so has the incidence of cancer. However, how cancer patterns in humans compare to those of other species remains largely unknown. In this review, we search for clues about cancer and its evolutionary underpinnings across the tree of life. We discuss data from a wide range of species, drawing comparisons with humans when adequate, and interpret our findings from an evolutionary perspective. We conclude that certain cancers are uniquely common in humans, such as lung, prostate, and testicular cancer; while others are common across many species. Lymphomas appear in almost every animal analysed, including in young animals, which may be related to pathogens imposing selection on the immune system. Cancers unique to humans may be due to our modern environment or may be evolutionary accidents: random events in the evolution of our species. Finally, we find that cancer-resistant animals such as whales and mole-rats have evolved cellular mechanisms that help them avoid neoplasia, and we argue that there are multiple natural routes to cancer resistance.

Keywords: ageing; comparative oncology; evolution; longevity; tumour.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Hydra*
  • Neoplasms*
  • Species Specificity