South African Journal of Science
On-line version ISSN 1996-7489
Print version ISSN 0038-2353
Evolutionary approaches to carcinogenesis have gained prominence in the literature and enhanced our understanding of cancer. However, an appreciation of neoplasia in the context of evolutionary transitions, particularly the transition from independent genes to a fully integrated genome, is largely absent. In the gene-genome evolutionary transition, mobile genetic elements (MGEs) can be studied as the extant exemplars of selfish autonomous lower-level units that cooperated to form a higher-level, functionally integrated genome. Here, we discuss levels of selection in cancer cells. In particular, we examine the tension between gene and genome units of selection by examining the expression profiles of MGE domains in an array of human cancers. Overall, across diverse cancers, there is an aberrant expression of several families of mobile elements, including the most common MGE in the human genome, retrotransposon LINE 1. These results indicate an alternative life-history strategy for MGEs in the cancers studied. Whether the aberrant expression is the cause or effect of tumourigenesis is unknown, although some evidence suggests that dysregulation of MGEs can play a role in cancer origin and progression. These data are interpreted in combination with phylostratigraphic reports correlating the origin of cancer genes with multicellularity and other potential increases in complexity in cancer cell populations. Cooperation and conflict between individuals at the gene, genome and cell level provide an evolutionary medicine perspective of cancer that enhances our understanding of disease pathogenesis and treatment.