The fight against cancer has drawn researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from molecular biology to physics, but the perspective of an ecological theorist has been mostly overlooked. By thinking about the cells that make up a tumour as an endangered species, cancer vulnerabilities become more apparent. Studies in conservation biology and microbial experiments indicate that extinction is a complex phenomenon, which is often driven by the interaction of ecological and evolutionary processes. Recent advances in cancer research have shown that tumours, like species striving for survival, harbour intricate population dynamics, which suggests the possibility to exploit the ecology of tumours for treatment.
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J.B.X. is supported by National Cancer Institute Grant CA148967 through the Integrative Cancer Biology Program and by the Office of the Director, US National Institutes of Health, under Award DP2OD008440.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
- Allee effect
A commonly observed deviation from logistic growth, with the per-capita growth rate reaching a maximum at an intermediate population size. One often distinguishes between a strong Allee effect, when the growth rate is negative at small population sizes, and a weak Allee effect, when the growth rate at small population sizes is small but positive.
- Auto-correlation time
The time that it takes deviations of a variable from its stable state to become statistically uncorrelated. This time is closely related to the recovery rate from perturbations.
- Coefficient of variation
The ratio of the standard deviation to the mean. The coefficient of variation measures the relative strength of fluctuations.
- Ecological dynamics
Describes interactions among species and the changes in their absolute abundances.
- Evolutionary dynamics
The emergence of new genotypes and the changes in relative abundances of the existing genotypes, including possible extinctions.
- Evolutionary game theory
Describes evolutionary dynamics in a polymorphic population consisting of organisms that use different strategies to succeed at a particular task and in which success depends on the strategies of other individuals, often conceptualized as a game. A typical example is a 'hawk–dove' game that describes a contest over mates. The success of an aggressive (hawk) strategy and a passive (dove) strategy depends on their relative abundance in the population and on how they fare in competition against other organisms with their own strategy and organisms with the opposite strategy.
- Frequency-dependent selection
Selection that occurs when the fitnesses of species or genotypes depend on their relative abundances in the population. This type of selection can lead to stable coexistence between two species when species A is more fit than species B; when species A is rare and species B is more fit than species A; or when species B is rare.
- Frequency-independent selection
Selection that occurs when the fitness of genotypes or species is independent of their relative abundance. In such situations, the genotype or species with the highest fitness takes over the population.
- Genetic drift
The random changes in relative frequencies of different genotypes in a population. The primary cause of genetic drift is the stochastic variation in the number of offspring among organisms with the same fitness. Genetic drifts makes natural selection less efficient: it enables fixation of deleterious mutations, as well as the loss of beneficial mutations.
- Logistic growth
A frequently used model of population growth, in which the net growth rate at population size N is rN(1 – N/K). At small population sizes, such populations grow exponentially at the per-capita growth rate r, whereas, at higher population sizes, the per-capita growth is diminished until it reaches zero at N = K. Here, K is the stationary population size, often termed the carrying capacity. Note that the per-capita growth rate is maximal at the smallest population sizes (N = 0).
- Population dynamics
An umbrella term that describes both ecological and evolutionary dynamics.
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Korolev, K., Xavier, J. & Gore, J. Turning ecology and evolution against cancer. Nat Rev Cancer 14, 371–380 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrc3712
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