Natural selection in cancer biology: From molecular snowflakes to trait hallmarks

Angelo Fortunato, Amy Boddy, Diego Mallo, C Athena Aktipis, Carlo Maley, John W. Pepper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Evolution by natural selection is the conceptual foundation for nearly every branch of biology and increasingly also for biomedicine and medical research. In cancer biology, evolution explains how populations of cells in tumors change over time. It is a fundamental question whether this evolutionary process is driven primarily by natural selection and adaptation or by other evolutionary processes such as founder effects and drift. In cancer biology, as in organismal evolutionary biology, there is controversy about this question and also about the use of adaptation through natural selection as a guiding framework for research. In this review, we discuss the differences and similarities between evolution among somatic cells versus evolution among organisms. We review what is known about the parameters and rate of evolution in neoplasms, aswell as evidence for adaptation. We conclude that adaptation is a useful framework that accurately explains the defining characteristics of cancer. Further, convergent evolution through natural selection provides the only satisfying explanation both for howa group of diverse pathologies have enough in common to usefully share the descriptive label of “cancer” and for why this convergent condition becomes lifethreatening.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbera029652
JournalCold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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