Few topics in science news generate more excitement than prospects for curing cancer. Whether or not dinosaurs had feathers is all well and good, but cancer research is a topic that hits people where they live, and where they suffer. Can evolutionary science help medical scientists fight this devastating array of diseases? Temple University's Sudhir Kumar and colleagues have jumped on that evolutionary cancer research bandwagon. They claim that their study of 500 million years of genetic patterns across the vertebrate evolutionary tree can — through evolutionary predictions — accurately predict mutations associated with cancer and, as a sort of bonus, even explain the genetic underpinnings of human evolution.
Knowing the Normal
There is a great deal of genetic variability among the human population. How do we know what is normal? Generally the norm is determined by sampling lots of people’s genomes and determining what is most common.
"There are two ways to generate a map of the human genome variation: one is to get genomes of all the humans and build a compilation as the 1,000 Genomes Project and others have undertaken," Kumar explains. However, he adds, "The alternative, which is the basis of our approach, is to compile all genome data from other species and predict what the human sequence reference should be"(emphasis added).