Nature communications

The reverse evolution from multicellularity to unicellularity during carcinogenesis.

PMID 25751731


Theoretical reasoning suggests that cancer may result from a knockdown of the genetic constraints that evolved for the maintenance of metazoan multicellularity. By characterizing the whole-life history of a xenograft tumour, here we show that metastasis is driven by positive selection for general loss-of-function mutations on multicellularity-related genes. Expression analyses reveal mainly downregulation of multicellularity-related genes and an evolving expression profile towards that of embryonic stem cells, the cell type resembling unicellular life in its capacity of unlimited clonal proliferation. Also, the emergence of metazoan multicellularity ~600 Myr ago is accompanied by an elevated birth rate of cancer genes, and there are more loss-of-function tumour suppressors than activated oncogenes in a typical tumour. These data collectively suggest that cancer represents a loss-of-function-driven reverse evolution back to the unicellular 'ground state'. This cancer evolution model may account for inter-/intratumoural genetic heterogeneity, could explain distant-organ metastases and hold implications for cancer therapy.