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Did Evolution Make Us Cancer Prone?

The Jerusalem Post: June 21, 2009 - Judy Siegel-Itzkovich

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Did some human mutations during evolution play a role in our susceptibility to diseases such as cancer? Researchers at Ben-Gurion University's National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN) have a hunch that there is a connection.

Dr. Eitan Rubin, an internationally recognized expert in bioinformatics, and Dr. Dan Mishmar, from the life sciences department, are members of the NIBN and collaborators on an intellectual journey that they believe provides enough clues to answer this question.

The team set out to look for mutations in the genome of the mitochondria - the part of every cell responsible for energy production, and which is passed to offspring only by females - that may have functional importance for evolution as well as for disease.

"We hypothesized that some mutations accumulated during evolution played a role in human adaptation to ancient environments, and play a role in today's susceptibility to complex diseases such as cancer," explains Rubin.

"To test this we analyzed the same data in a different way and showed that there is a connection."

Their findings were recently featured as the cover story of the leading US journal Genome Research. The team - including two graduate students - found that the mitochondrial genome of humans who migrated out of Africa to Europe 100,000 years ago carried seven mutations found in almost all of today's Europeans.

Since such "evolutionary mutations" are found in the general population, many researchers regard them as functionally unimportant. "We are the first to show conclusive evidence of the role of mitochondrial evolutionary mutations and cancer," declares Mishmar. Rubin adds: "We hope this will direct us to new ways of predicting how cancer appears in humans."