MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Can insects get cancer?

Date: Wed Apr 6 21:33:43 2005
Posted By: Paul Nagami, Undergraduate, Biology, California Institute of Technology
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1112143251.Gb

This is quite a coincidence.

The first day I worked in the fly lab, I asked my postdoc this exact 
question, and he gave the answer you suggested - that insects don't live 
long enough to get cancer. However, you raise a good point. Do long-lived 
insects get cancer?

It's definitely possible to cause even short-lived insects to get cancer 
by mutagenizing them. The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster only lives 
three weeks, but a paper came out in _Cell_ on the subject of fruit fly 
cancer just last month. [1] The researchers discovered a mutant fruit fly 
that spontaneously develops tumors.

So, given that some mutations can cause insects to get cancer, it should 
be possible for any insect that lives long enough to develop such 
mutations to get cancer. And given the large numbers of insects in, say, a 
termite mound, and the number of genes that could produce uncontrolled 
cell division when mutated, cancer seems not only possible, but probable. 
We just don't notice a few termites more or less.

(An excellent question, by the way. Insects are excellent model systems, 
and knowledge about spontaneous cancer in insects could prove extremely 

Paul Nagami
California Institute of Technology


[1] Lai, Wei, Shimizu et al. (2005) Control of cell proliferation and 
apoptosis by Mob as tumor suppressor, Mats. Cell 120:675-685

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