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PLoS One. 2009 Jun 10;4(6):e5860. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005860.

Mutator mutations enhance tumorigenic efficiency across fitness landscapes.

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Simons Center for Systems Biology, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA.



Tumorigenesis requires multiple genetic changes. Mutator mutations are mutations that increase genomic instability, and according to the mutator hypothesis, accelerate tumorigenesis by facilitating oncogenic mutations. Alternatively, repeated lineage selection and expansion without increased mutation frequency may explain observed cancer incidence. Mutator lineages also risk increased deleterious mutations, leading to extinction, thus providing another counterargument to the mutator hypothesis. Both selection and extinction involve changes in lineage fitness, which may be represented as "trajectories" through a "fitness landscape" defined by genetics and environment.


Here I systematically analyze the relative efficiency of tumorigenesis with and without mutator mutations by evaluating archetypal fitness trajectories using deterministic and stochastic mathematical models. I hypothesize that tumorigenic mechanisms occur clinically in proportion to their relative efficiency. This work quantifies the relative importance of mutator pathways as a function of experimentally measurable parameters, demonstrating that mutator pathways generally enhance efficiency of tumorigenesis. An optimal mutation rate for tumor evolution is derived, and shown to differ from that for species evolution.


The models address the major counterarguments to the mutator hypothesis, confirming that mutator mechanisms are generally more efficient routes to tumorigenesis than non-mutator mechanisms. Mutator mutations are more likely to occur early, and to occur when more oncogenic mutations are required to create a tumor. Mutator mutations likely occur in a minority of premalignant lesions, but these mutator premalignant lesions are disproportionately likely to develop into malignant tumors. Tumor heterogeneity due to mutator mutations may contribute to therapeutic resistance, and the degree of heterogeneity of tumors may need to be considered when therapeutic strategies are devised. The model explains and predicts important biological observations in bacterial and mouse systems, as well as clinical observations.

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