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Ecol Lett. 2017 Feb;20(2):117-134. doi: 10.1111/ele.12726. Epub 2017 Jan 16.

A framework for how environment contributes to cancer risk.

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Intstitut des Sciences de l'Evolution de Montpellier, Université de Montpellier, Place E. Bataillon, CC065, 34095, Montpellier Cedex 5, France.
Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Rd., Santa Fe, NM, 87501, USA.


Evolutionary theory explains why metazoan species are largely protected against the negative fitness effects of cancers. Nevertheless, cancer is often observed at high incidence across a range of species. Although there are many challenges to quantifying cancer epidemiology and assessing its causes, we claim that most modern-day cancer in animals - and humans in particular - are due to environments deviating from central tendencies of distributions that have prevailed during cancer resistance evolution. Such novel environmental conditions may be natural and/or of anthropogenic origin, and may interface with cancer risk in numerous ways, broadly classifiable as those: increasing organism body size and/or life span, disrupting processes within the organism, and affecting germline. We argue that anthropogenic influences, in particular, explain much of the present-day cancer risk across life, including in humans. Based on a literature survey of animal species and a parameterised mathematical model for humans, we suggest that combined risks of all cancers in a population beyond c. 5% can be explained to some extent by the influence of novel environments. Our framework provides a basis for understanding how natural environmental variation and human activity impact cancer risk, with potential implications for species ecology.


Ageing; anthropogenic impact; body size; cancer risk; environment; epidemiology; evolutionary mismatch; global change; longevity; modern lifestyles; mutagens; pathogens

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