Cellular ‘Cheaters’ Give Rise to Cancer

George Johnson in The New York Times:

CancerMaybe it was in “some warm little pond,” Charles Darwin speculated in 1871, that life on Earth began. A few simple chemicals sloshed together and formed complex molecules. These, over great stretches of time, joined in various combinations, eventually giving rise to the first living cell: a self-sustaining bag of chemistry capable of dividing and spawning copies of itself. While scientists still debate the specifics, most subscribe to some version of what Darwin suggested — genesis as a fortuitous chemical happenstance. But the story of how living protoplasm emerged from lifeless matter may also help explain something darker: the origin of cancer.

As the primordial cells mutated and evolved, ruthlessly competing for nutrients, some stumbled upon a different course. They cooperated instead, sharing resources and responsibilities and so giving rise to multicellular creatures — plants, animals and eventually us. Each of these collectives is held together by a delicate web of biological compromises. By surrendering some of its autonomy, each cell prospers with the whole. But inevitably, there are cheaters: A cell breaks loose from the interlocking constraints and begins selfishly multiplying and expanding its territory, reverting to the free-for-all of Darwin’s pond. And so cancer begins.

More here.