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Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2017 Feb 1;7(2). pii: a029652. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a029652.

Natural Selection in Cancer Biology: From Molecular Snowflakes to Trait Hallmarks.

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Biodesign Center for Personalized Diagnostics, and School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287.
Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287.
Biodesign Center for Evolution and Medicine, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287.
Centre for Evolution and Cancer, Institute of Cancer Research, London SM2 5NG, United Kingdom.
Biometry Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Maryland 20850.
Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.


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, as well 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 how a group of diverse pathologies have enough in common to usefully share the descriptive label of "cancer" and for why this convergent condition becomes life-threatening.

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