Elephants resist cancer by waking a zombie gene

Elephants have evolved a way to make LIF6 (a non-functioning, or dead, gene in mammals) come back to life, and it’s what makes the largest living land mammals nearly immune to cancer. In response to DNA damage, such as that caused by mistakes during cell division or by ultraviolet rays, the elephant version of the tumor-suppressing protein p53 prompts “zombie” LIF6 to efficiently kill cells poised to become cancerous. The research publishes August 14 in the journal Cell Reports.

“Elephants get cancer far less than we’d expect based on their size, so we want to understand the genetic basis for this cancer resistance,” says senior author Vincent Lynch (@DevoEvoMed), a geneticist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. “We found that elephants and their relatives have many non-functioning copies of the LIF gene, but that elephants themselves evolved a way to turn one of these copies, LIF6, back on.”

All of the elephant’s close relatives, such as the manatee and groundhog-sized hyrax, are much smaller than it is, which allowed the researchers to isolate elephant-specific genetic variations and focus on which ones could be associated with cancer suppression. First, they introduced cancer-causing DNA damage to cells from both


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