Frank, S. A. 2010. Somatic evolutionary genomics: Mutations during development cause highly variable genetic mosaicism with risk of cancer and neurodegeneration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107:1725-1730.

Somatic mutations must happen often during development because of the large number of cell divisions to expand from a single-cell zygote to a full organism. A mutation in development carries forward to all descendant cells, causing genetic mosaicism. Widespread genetic mosaicism may influence diseases that derive from a few genetically altered cells, such as cancer. I show how to predict the expected amount of mosaicism and the variation in mosaicism between individuals. I then calculate the predicted risk of cancer derived from developmental mutations. The calculations show that a significant fraction of cancer in later life likely arises from developmental mutations in early life. In addition, much of the variation in the risk of cancer between individuals may arise from variation in the degree of genetic mosaicism set in early life. I also suggest that certain types of neurodegeneration, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), may derive from a small focus of genetically altered cells. If so, then the risk of ALS would be influenced by developmental mutations and the consequent variation in genetic mosaicism. New technologies promise the ability to measure genetic mosaicism by sampling a large number of cellular genomes within an individual. The sampling of many genomes within an individual will eventually allow one to reconstruct the cell lineage history of genetic change in a single body. Somatic evolutionary genomics will follow from this technology, providing new insight into the origin and progression of disease with increasing age.


Download reprint