Mitochondrial genome sequencing of marine leukaemias reveals cancer contagion between clam species in the Seas of Southern Europe

Elife. 2022 Jan 18;11:e66946. doi: 10.7554/eLife.66946.


Clonally transmissible cancers are tumour lineages that are transmitted between individuals via the transfer of living cancer cells. In marine bivalves, leukaemia-like transmissible cancers, called hemic neoplasia (HN), have demonstrated the ability to infect individuals from different species. We performed whole-genome sequencing in eight warty venus clams that were diagnosed with HN, from two sampling points located more than 1000 nautical miles away in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea Coasts of Spain. Mitochondrial genome sequencing analysis from neoplastic animals revealed the coexistence of haplotypes from two different clam species. Phylogenies estimated from mitochondrial and nuclear markers confirmed this leukaemia originated in striped venus clams and later transmitted to clams of the species warty venus, in which it survives as a contagious cancer. The analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences supports all studied tumours belong to a single neoplastic lineage that spreads in the Seas of Southern Europe.

Keywords: cancer biology; cancer genomes; ecology; marine leukaemias; transmissible cancer.

Plain language summary

In humans and other animals, cancer cells divide excessively, forming tumours or flooding the blood, but they rarely spread to other individuals. However, some animals, including dogs, Tasmanian devils and bivalve molluscs like clams, cockles and mussels, can develop cancers that are transmitted from one individual to another. Despite these cancers being contagious, each one originates in a single animal, meaning that even when the cancer has spread to many individuals, its origins can be traced through its DNA. Cancer contagion is rare, but transmissible cancers seem to be particularly common in the oceans. In fact, 7 types of contagious cancer have been described in bivalve species so far. These cancers are known as ‘hemic neoplasias’, and are characterized by the uncontrolled division of blood-like cells, which can be released by the host they developed in, and survive in ocean water. When these cells encounter individuals from the same species, they can infect them, causing them to develop hemic neoplasia too There are still many unanswered questions about contagious cancers in bivalves. For example, how many species do the cancers affect, and which species do the cancers originate in? To address these questions, Garcia-Souto, Bruzos, Díaz et al. gathered over 400 specimens of a species of clam called the warty venus clam from the coastlines of Europe and examined them for signs of cancer. Clams collected in two regions of Spain showed signs of hemic neoplasia: one of the populations was from the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, while the other came from the Atlantic coast of northwestern Spain. Analyzing the genomes of the tumours from each population showed that the cancer cells from both regions had likely originated in the same animal, indicating that the cancer is contagious and had spread through different populations. The analysis also revealed that the cancer did not originally develop in warty venus clams: the cancer cells contained DNA from both warty venus clams and another species called striped venus clams. These two species live close together in the Mediterranean Sea, suggesting that the cancer started in a striped venus clam and then spread to a warty venus clam. To determine whether the cancer still affected both species, Garcia-Souto, Bruzos, Díaz et al. screened 200 striped venus clams from the same areas, but no signs of cancer were found in these clams. This suggests that currently the cancer only affects the warty venus clam. These findings confirm that contagious cancers can jump between clam species, which could be threat to the marine environment. The fact that the cancer was so similar in clams from the Atlantic coast and from the Mediterranean Sea, however, suggests that it may have emerged very recently, or that human activity helped it to spread from one place to another. If the latter is the case, it may be possible to prevent further spread of these sea-borne cancers through human intervention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bivalvia / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Genome, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Leukemia / genetics*
  • Mediterranean Sea
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Spain
  • Whole Genome Sequencing


  • DNA, Mitochondrial

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.zcrjdfn9v