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Cancer as Side Effect of Multicellularity

The story of how life on Earth began may also be the story of how cancer develops, writes George Johnson in a column at the New York Times.

Some of the single cells floating in the primordial goo eventually came together to share resources and develop into multicellular organisms, he says. But some of these seemingly cooperative cells cheat and multiply on their own — turning into a tumor.

"Although we are getting better at preventing or controlling these rebellions, cancer is an inescapable consequence of multicellularity," Johnson says.

He notes that tumors and such cellular cheaters, as he calls them, have been uncovered in just about every multicellular organism, from fungi to birds. "What is clear from the abundance of examples is that multicellular life is a continual struggle between competition and cooperation," he adds. "Tip the balance too far, and the result might be a malignancy."

But that, Johnson says, also doesn't work out well for the cheating cells in the end — as "cancer destroys its own ecosystem and dies with its host."

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