Reverting to single-cell biology: The predictions of the atavism theory of cancer

Kimberly J. Bussey, Paul C.W. Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Cancer or cancer-like phenomena pervade multicellular life, implying deep evolutionary roots. Many of the hallmarks of cancer recapitulate unicellular modalities, suggesting that cancer initiation and progression represent a systematic reversion to simpler ancestral phenotypes in response to a stress or insult. This so-called atavism theory may be tested using phylostratigraphy, which can be used to assign ages to genes. Several research groups have confirmed that cancer cells tend to over-express evolutionary older genes, and rewire the architecture linking unicellular and multicellular gene networks. In addition, some of the elevated mutation rate – a well-known hallmark of cancer – is actually self-inflicted, driven by genes found to be homologs of the ancient SOS genes activated in stressed bacteria, and employed to evolve biological workarounds. These findings have obvious implications for therapy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-55
Number of pages7
JournalProgress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Atavism
  • Bacteria
  • Evolutionary ages
  • Phylostratigraphy
  • SOS response
  • Unicellularity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Molecular Biology


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