Negative frequency-dependent selection on polymorphic color morphs in adders

Authors: Thomas Madsen, Bo Stille, Beata Ujvari, Dirk Bauwens, John A. Endler

Source: Current Biology (JUN 2022)


Color pattern polymorphism occurs when more than one form is found within the same population. It is widespread in a variety of taxa, leading us to ask what maintains this variation. One stabilizing mechanism is negative frequency-dependent selection, also known as apostatic selection, in which the fitness of a phenotype decreases with its frequency.

Negative frequency-dependent selection has been proposed as one of the most powerful selective forces in maintaining phenotypic and genetic diversity in both plant and animal populations. Despite its importance and experimental evidence, no study has documented that natural selection due to predation may result in negative frequency-dependent selection in a wild undisturbed vertebrate population.

Here, we report the results of a long-term study, spanning 37 years from 1984 to 2020, of two distinct color morphs, zigzag and melanistic, within a population of adult adders (Vipera berus) on the island of Hallands Väderö in southern Sweden.

Our results strongly suggest that the color pattern polymorphism is maintained by negative frequency-dependent natural selection in both males and females.

Mass-related differences in metabolic rate and fasting endurance explain divergence in seasonal activity of Mediterranean lizards

Authors: Luca Luiselli, Bo Stille, Marie Stille, William A. Buttemer and Thomas Madsen

Source: Amphibia-Reptilia (MAY 2022)


We analysed the effects of body mass on the monthly activity patterns of six Mediterranean lacertid lizard taxa, four relatively small species, the Italian wall lizard (Podarcis siculus), the common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis), the blue-throated keeled lizard (Algyroides nigropunctatus), and the Ionian wall lizard (Podarcis ionicus), and two larger species, the western green lizard (Lacerta bilineata) and the Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata).

The highest number of observations for all six species occurred in April and May and the lowest in July and August, the latter being the hottest and driest months of the year. The two larger species were mainly active from March to July, whereas the four smaller species had an additional period of high activity from September to November. As all six species reproduce during spring, the increase in activity of the smaller species in autumn was consequently unrelated to reproductive behaviour. There was no difference in seasonal activity of the two smaller Italian species at sites with or without the larger green lizards. It is therefore unlikely that interference competition/predation by green lizards caused the increased autumnal activity of the smaller lizards.

We suggest that due to their lower mass-specific metabolic rates, larger species can obtain sufficient lipid stores over a shorter annual activity to ensure successful reproduction the subsequent spring. By contrast, smaller species have greater need to replenish their lipid reserves after summer fasting and therefore resume much higher activity levels in September to November to attain this goal.

Telomeres, the loop tying cancer to organismal life-histories

Authors: Beata Ujvari, Nynke Raven, Thomas Madsen, Marcel Klaassen, Antoine M. Dujon, Aaron G. Schultz, Leonard Nunney, Jean-François Lemaître, Mathieu Giraudeau, Frédéric Thomas



Recent developments in telomere and cancer evolutionary ecology demonstrate a very complex relationship between the need of tissue repair and controlling the emergence of abnormally proliferating cells. The trade-off is balanced by natural and sexual selection and mediated via both intrinsic and environmental factors.

Here, we explore the effects of telomere-cancer dynamics on life history traits and strategies as well as on the cumulative effects of genetic and environmental factors. We show that telomere-cancer dynamics constitute an incredibly complex and multifaceted process. From research to date, it appears that the relationship between telomere length and cancer risk is likely nonlinear with good evidence that both (too) long and (too) short telomeres can be associated with increased cancer risk.

The ability and propensity of organisms to respond to the interplay of telomere dynamics and oncogenic processes, depends on the combination of its tissue environments, life history strategies, environmental challenges (i.e., extreme climatic conditions), pressure by predators and pollution, as well as its evolutionary history. Consequently, precise interpretation of telomere-cancer dynamics requires integrative and multidisciplinary approaches.

Finally, incorporating information on telomere dynamics and the expression of tumour suppressor genes and oncogenes could potentially provide the synergistic overview that could lay the foundations to study telomere-cancer dynamics at ecosystem levels.

A novel perspective suggesting high sustained energy expenditure may be net protective against cancer

Authors: Peter A Biro, Frédéric Thomas, Beata Ujvari, Christa Beckmann



Energy expenditure (EE) is generally viewed as tumorigenic, due to production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that can damage cells and DNA. On this basis, individuals within a species that sustain high EE should be more likely to develop cancer.

Here, we argue the opposite, that high EE may be net protective effect against cancer, despite high ROS production. This is possible because individuals that sustain high EE have a greater energetic capacity (=greater energy acquisition, expenditure and ability to up-regulate output), and can therefore allocate energy to multiple cancer-fighting mechanisms with minimal energetic trade-offs.

Our review finds that individuals sustaining high EE have greater antioxidant production, lower oxidative stress, greater immune function and lower cancer incidence. Our hypothesis and literature review suggest that EE may indeed be net protective against cancer, and that individual variation in energetic capacity may be a key mechanism to understand the highly individual nature of cancer risk in contemporary human populations and laboratory animals.

Season, weight, and age, but not transmissible cancer, affect tick loads in the endangered Tasmanian devil

Authors: Sophia Belkhir; Rodrigo Hamede; Frédéric Thomas; Beata Ujvari; Antoine M. Dujon



The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial threatened by a transmissible cancer, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). While we have a good understanding of the effect of the transmissible cancer on its host, little information is available about its potential interactions with ectoparasites.

With this study, we aimed to determine the factors driving tick loads in a DFTD affected Tasmanian devil population, using long-term mark-recapture data. We investigated the effect of a range of life history traits (age, weight, sex, body condition) and of DFTD (time since DFTD arrival and presence of tumours) on the ectoparasitic tick load of the devils.

Mixed effect models revealed that tick load in Tasmanian devils was primarily driven by season, weight, body condition and age. Young devils had more ticks compared to older or healthier devils. The reduction in Tasmanian devil population size over the past 14 years at the studied site had little effect on tick infestation.

We also found that devils infected by DFTD had a similar tick load compared to those free of observable tumours, suggesting no interaction between the transmissible cancer and tick load. Our study highlights seasonality and life cycle as primary drivers of tick infestation in Tasmanian devils and the need for further investigations to integrate devil stress and immune dynamics with ectoparasite counts.

Transmissible cancer influences immune gene expression in an endangered marsupial, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Authors: Nynke Raven, Marcel Klaassen, Thomas Madsen, Frédéric Thomas, Rodrigo K. Hamede, Beata Ujvari

Source: Molecular Ecology (FEB 2022)


Understanding the effects of wildlife diseases on populations requires insight into local environmental conditions, host defence mechanisms, host life-history trade-offs, pathogen population dynamics, and their interactions. The survival of Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) is challenged by a novel, fitness limiting pathogen, Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a clonally transmissible, contagious cancer.

In order to understand the devils’ capacity to respond to DFTD, it is crucial to gain information on factors influencing the devils’ immune system. By using RT-qPCR, we investigated how DFTD infection in association with intrinsic (sex and age) and environmental (season) factors influences the expression of 10 immune genes in Tasmanian devil blood.

Our study showed that the expression of immune genes (both innate and adaptive) differed across seasons, a pattern that was altered when infected with DFTD. The expression of immunogbulins IgE and IgM:IgG showed downregulation in colder months in DFTD infected animals.

We also observed strong positive association between the expression of an innate immune gene, CD16, and DFTD infection. Our results demonstrate that sampling across seasons, age groups and environmental conditions are beneficial when deciphering the complex ecoevolutionary interactions of not only conventional host-parasite systems, but also of host and diseases with high mortality rates, such as transmissible cancers.

Cancer risk across mammals

Authors: Orsolya Vincze, Fernando Colchero, Jean-Francois Lemaître, Dalia A. Conde, Samuel Pavard, Margaux Bieuville, Araxi O. Urrutia, Beata Ujvari, Amy M. Boddy, Carlo C. Maley, Frédéric Thomas & Mathieu Giraudeau

Source: Nature (JAN 2022)


Cancer is a ubiquitous disease of metazoans, predicted to disproportionately affect larger, long-lived organisms owing to their greater number of cell divisions, and thus increased probability of somatic mutations.

While elevated cancer risk with larger body size and/or longevity has been documented within species, Peto’s paradox indicates the apparent lack of such an association among taxa. Yet, unequivocal empirical evidence for Peto’s paradox is lacking, stemming from the difficulty of estimating cancer risk in non-model species.

Here we build and analyse a database on cancer-related mortality using data on adult zoo mammals (110,148 individuals, 191 species) and map age-controlled cancer mortality to the mammalian tree of life. We demonstrate the universality and high frequency of oncogenic phenomena in mammals and reveal substantial differences in cancer mortality across major mammalian orders.

We show that the phylogenetic distribution of cancer mortality is associated with diet, with carnivorous mammals (especially mammal-consuming ones) facing the highest cancer-related mortality. Moreover, we provide unequivocal evidence for the body size and longevity components of Peto’s paradox by showing that cancer mortality risk is largely independent of both body mass and adult life expectancy across species.

These results highlight the key role of life-history evolution in shaping cancer resistance and provide major advancements in the quest for natural anticancer defences.

The evolution and ecology of benign tumors

Authors: Justine Boutry, Sophie Tissot, Beata Ujvari, Jean-Pascal Capp, Mathieu Giraudeau, Aurora M. Nedelcu, Frédéric Thomas

Source: Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Reviews on Cancer (JAN 2022)


Tumors are usually classified into two main categories – benign or malignant, with much more attention being devoted to the second category given that they are usually associated with more severe health issues (i.e., metastatic cancers).

Here, we argue that the mechanistic distinction between benign and malignant tumors has narrowed our understanding of neoplastic processes. This review provides the first comprehensive discussion of benign tumors in the context of their evolution and ecology as well as interactions with their hosts. We compare the genetic and epigenetic profiles, cellular activities, and the involvement of viruses in benign and malignant tumors. We also address the impact of intra-tumoral cell composition and its relationship with the tumoral microenvironment.

Lastly, we explore the differences in the distribution of benign and malignant neoplasia across the tree of life and provide examples on how benign tumors can also affect individual fitness and consequently the evolutionary trajectories of populations and species.

Overall, our goal is to bring attention to the non-cancerous manifestations of tumors, at different scales, and to stimulate research on the evolutionary ecology of host–tumor interactions on a broader scale.

Ultimately, we suggest that a better appreciation of the differences and similarities between benign and malignant tumors is fundamental to our understanding of malignancy both at mechanistic and evolutionary levels.

Odors and cancer: Current status and future directions

Authors: Flora Gouzerh, Jean-Marie Bessière, Beata Ujvari, Frédéric Thomas , Antoine M Dujon, Laurent Dormont

Source: Biochimica Et Biophysica Acta-reviews On Cancer (NOV2021)


Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world. Because tumors detected at early stages are easier to treat, the search for biomarkers-especially non-invasive ones-that allow early detection of malignancies remains a central goal to reduce cancer mortality.

Cancer, like other pathologies, often alters body odors, and much has been done by scientists over the last few decades to assess the value of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as signatures of cancers. We present here a quantitative review of 208 studies carried out between 1984 and 2020 that explore VOCs as potential biomarkers of cancers.

We analyzed the main findings of these studies, listing and classifying VOCs related to different cancer types while considering both sampling methods and analysis techniques. Considering this synthesis, we discuss several of the challenges and the most promising prospects of this research direction in the war against cancer.

Bridging Tumorigenesis and Therapy Resistance With a Non-Darwinian and Non-Lamarckian Mechanism of Adaptive Evolution

Authors: Francesco Catania, Beata Ujvari, Benjamin Roche, Jean-Pascal Capp and Frédéric Thomas



Although neo-Darwinian (and less often Lamarckian) dynamics are regularly invoked to interpret cancer’s multifarious molecular profiles, they shine little light on how tumorigenesis unfolds and often fail to fully capture the frequency and breadth of resistance mechanisms. This uncertainty frames one of the most problematic gaps between science and practice in modern times.

Here, we offer a theory of adaptive cancer evolution, which builds on a molecular mechanism that lies outside neo-Darwinian and Lamarckian schemes. This mechanism coherently integrates non-genetic and genetic changes, ecological and evolutionary time scales, and shifts the spotlight away from positive selection towards purifying selection, genetic drift, and the creative-disruptive power of environmental change.

The surprisingly simple use-it or lose-it rationale of the proposed theory can help predict molecular dynamics during tumorigenesis. It also provides simple rules of thumb that should help improve therapeutic approaches in cancer.