Cancer cells can grow and spread in one individual, but they normally do not spread to others. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, there are cancers in Tasmanian devils, dogs and bivalve shellfish that can spread to other members of the same species. In these creatures, cancer from one individual evolved the ability to spread throughout the population. These cancer cells infect animals like a pathogen.
A fatal cancer called disseminated neoplasia affects many species of bivalves. In four bivalve species, including the marine mussel Mytilus trossulus, scientists have shown that the cancer can spread from one individual to another. This transmissible cancer has been found in M. trossulus mussels in British Columbia, Canada; but related species of mussels in other parts of the world also develop disseminated neoplasia. It is possible these other cancers are transmissible and have spread from one population of mussels to another.
Yonemitsu et al. performed genetic analyses to show that cancers found in two other mussel species – Mytilus chilensis in South America and Mytilus edulis in Europe – are transmissible and arose in M. trossulus. The cancers in the South American and European mussels were nearly identical genetically, which suggests that they came from a single M. trossulus mussel with cancer at some point in the past. Somehow cancer cells spread between the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres and across the Atlantic Ocean, infecting multiple species across the world. The analyses also show that this cancer lineage is different from the one previously identified in British Columbia.
These analyses show that bivalve transmissible neoplasia was able to spread worldwide, most likely through accidental transport of infected mussels on international shipping vessels. This suggests that human activities unwittingly introduced the disease to new areas. Learning more about transmissible cancers may help scientists understand how cancers evolve with their hosts in extreme situations.