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Genetics Unzipped: A menagerie of malignancy – Cancer across the animal kingdom

Posted by , on 18 November 2021

Photo by Marta Wave from Pexels

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, Kat Arney takes a trip to the zoo, to find out how studying tumours across the animal kingdom, from naked mole rats to elephants, can reveal insights into cancer in our own species.

In 2014, geneticists at the University of Kiel in Germany published a paper describing tumours in two different species of tiny freshwater Hydra.  Little more than a tube with tentacles, Hydra comprise three distinct groups of stem cells. One of these groups, known as interstitial stem cells, turned out to be the source of the cancers, which severely impacted growth and fertility. 

But while Hydra may be the simplest organisms currently known to develop cancer, they are far from the only example outside our own species. Kat explores how cancer has been found on virtually every branch of the tree of multicellular life, from the simplest to the most complex. And she tells the story of how a family trip to the zoo led to the University of Utah’s Professor Josh Schiffman discovering the biological secret that explains why elephants hardly ever get cancer.

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from The Genetics Society. Full transcript, links and references available online at

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