More cells, less cancer

Large animals such as elephants have evolved to rarely have cancer – but how?

An African elephant. Image credit: Public domain

From the gigantic blue whale to the minuscule bumblebee bat, animals come in all shapes and sizes. Any species can develop cancer, but some are more at risk than others. In theory, if every cell has the same probability of becoming cancerous, then bigger animals should get cancer more often since they have more cells than smaller ones. Amongst the same species, this relationship is true: taller people and bigger dogs have a greater cancer risk than their smaller counterparts.

Yet this correlation does not hold when comparing between species: remarkably large creatures, like elephants and whales, are not more likely to have cancer than any other animal. But how have these gigantic animals evolved to be at lower risk for the disease?

To investigate, Vazquez and Lynch compared the cancer risk and the genetic information of a diverse group of closely related animals with different body sizes. This included elephants, woolly mammoths and mastodons as well as their small relatives, the manatees, armadillos, and marmot-sized hyraxes. Examining these species’ genomes revealed that, during evolution, elephants had acquired extra copies of ‘tumour suppressor genes’ which can sense and repair the genetic and cellular damages that turn healthy cells into tumours. This allowed the species to evolve large bodies while lowering their risk of cancer.

Further studies could investigate whether other gigantic animals evolved similar ways to shield themselves from cancer; these could also examine precisely how having additional copies of cancer-protecting genes helps reduce cancer risk, potentially paving the way for new approaches to treat or prevent the disease.