Letter | Published:

Widespread transmission of independent cancer lineages within multiple bivalve species

Nature volume 534, pages 705709 (30 June 2016) | Download Citation


Most cancers arise from oncogenic changes in the genomes of somatic cells, and while the cells may migrate by metastasis, they remain within that single individual. Natural transmission of cancer cells from one individual to another has been observed in two distinct cases in mammals (Tasmanian devils1 and dogs2,3), but these are generally considered to be rare exceptions in nature. The discovery of transmissible cancer in soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria)4 suggested that this phenomenon might be more widespread. Here we analyse disseminated neoplasia in mussels (Mytilus trossulus), cockles (Cerastoderma edule), and golden carpet shell clams (Polititapes aureus) and find that neoplasias in all three species are attributable to independent transmissible cancer lineages. In mussels and cockles, the cancer lineages are derived from their respective host species; however, unexpectedly, cancer cells in P. aureus are all derived from Venerupis corrugata, a different species living in the same geographical area. No cases of disseminated neoplasia have thus far been found in V. corrugata from the same region. These findings show that transmission of cancer cells in the marine environment is common in multiple species, that it has originated many times, and that while most transmissible cancers are found spreading within the species of origin, cross-species transmission of cancer cells can occur.

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Data deposits

Sequences generated in this work have been deposited in GenBank under accession numbers KX018521KX018605.


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M.J.M. and S.P.G. were supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Training Grant T32 CA009503. D.I., M.J.C., and A.V. were supported by the Consellería do Mar da Xunta de Galicia, through the project PGIDIT-CIMA 13/03. We thank J. Ausió for help in collection of M. trossulus from Vancouver Island.

Author information


  1. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Columbia University, New York 10032, USA

    • Michael J. Metzger
    •  & Stephen P. Goff
  2. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, New York, New York 10032, USA

    • Michael J. Metzger
    •  & Stephen P. Goff
  3. Centro de Investigacións Mariñas, Consellería do Mar, Xunta de Galicia, Vilanova de Arousa 36620, Spain

    • Antonio Villalba
    • , María J. Carballal
    •  & David Iglesias
  4. Department of Life Sciences, University of Alcalá, Alcalá de Henares 28871, Spain

    • Antonio Villalba
  5. Environment Canada, Water Science & Technology Directorate, Burlington, Ontario L7R 4A6, Canada

    • James Sherry
    •  & Carol Reinisch
  6. Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of British Columbia, Vancouver V6T 1Z3, Canada

    • Annette F. Muttray
    •  & Susan A. Baldwin
  7. SLR Consulting Canada Ltd., Vancouver V6J 1V4, Canada

    • Annette F. Muttray
  8. Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA

    • Stephen P. Goff


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M.J.M. and S.P.G. wrote the manuscript. M.J.M. conducted molecular analyses. A.F.M. and S.A.B. collected and diagnosed M. trossulus from West Vancouver. J.S. and C.R. collected and diagnosed M. trossulus from Vancouver Island. D.I., M.J.C., and A.V. collected and diagnosed C. edule and P. aureus. M.J.C. produced micrographs of C. edule neoplastic haemocytes, and D.I. conducted morphometric analysis.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen P. Goff.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks E. Murchison, S. O’Brien, G. De Vico, R. A. Weiss and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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