Resource competition promotes tumour expansion in experimentally evolved cancer

Tiffany Taylor, Anastasia Wass, Louise J. Johnson, Phil Dash

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Tumour progression involves a series of phenotypic changes to cancer cells, each of which presents therapeutic targets. Here, using techniques adapted from microbial experimental evolution, we investigate the evolution of tumour spreading - a precursor for metastasis and tissue invasion - in environments with varied resource supply. Evolutionary theory predicts that competition for resources within a population will select for individuals to move away from a natal site (i.e. disperse), facilitating the colonisation of unexploited resources and decreasing competition between kin.

After approximately 100 generations in environments with low resource supply, we find that MCF7 breast cancer spheroids (small in vitro tumours) show increased spreading. Conversely, spreading slows compared to the ancestor where resource supply is high. Common garden experiments confirm that the evolutionary responses differ between selection lines; with lines evolved under low resource supply showing phenotypic plasticity in spheroid spreading rate. These differences in spreading behaviour between selection lines are heritable (stable across multiple generations), and show that the divergently evolved lines differ in their response to resource supply.

We observe dispersal-like behaviour and an increased sensitivity to resource availability in our selection lines, which may be a response to selection, or alternatively may be due to epigenetic changes, provoked by prolonged resource limitation, that have persisted across many cell generations. Different clinical strategies may be needed depending on whether or not tumour progression is due to natural selection. This study highlights the effectiveness of experimental evolution approaches in cancer cell populations and demonstrates how simple model systems might enable us to observe and measure key selective drivers of clinically important traits.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)268-277
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Dec 2017


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