Phylostratigraphic analysis of tumor and developmental transcriptomes reveals relationship between oncogenesis, phylogenesis and ontogenesis

Submitted by asgraves on February 14, 2018 - 10:21am

Joseph X. Zhou, Luis Cisneros, Theo Knijnenburg, Kalliopi Trachana, Paul Davies, Sui Huang (2018). Convergent Science: Physical Oncology. IOP Science.


The question of the existence of cancer is inadequately answered by invoking somatic mutations or the disruptions of cellular and tissue control mechanisms. As such uniformly random events alone cannot account for the almost inevitable occurrence of an extremely complex process such as cancer. In the different epistemic realm, an ultimate explanation of cancer is that cancer is a reversion of a cell to an ancestral pre-Metazoan state, i.e. a cellular form of atavism. Several studies have suggested that genes involved in cancer have evolved at particular evolutionary time linked to the unicellular-multicellular transition. Here we used a refined phylostratigraphic analysis of evolutionary ages of the known genes/pathways associated with cancer and the genes differentially expressed between normal and cancer tissue as well as between embryonic and mature (differentiated) cells. We found that cancer-specific transcriptomes and cancer-related pathways were enriched for genes that evolved in the pre-Metazoan era and depleted of genes that evolved in the post-Metazoan era. By contrast an opposite relation was found for cell maturation: the age distribution frequency of the genes expressed in differentiated epithelial cells were enriched for post-Metazoan genes and depleted of pre-Metazoan ones. These findings support the atavism theory that cancer cells manifest the reactivation of an ancient ancestral state featuring unicellular modalities. Thus our bioinformatics analyses suggest that not only does oncogenesis recapitulate ontogenesis, and ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis, but also oncogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis. This more encompassing perspective may offer a natural organizing framework for genetic alterations in cancers and point to new treatment options that target the genes controlling the atavism transition.