Frank, S. A. 2014. Somatic mosaicism and disease. Current Biology 24:R577-R581.
The large number of cell divisions required to make a human body inevitably leads to the accumulation of somatic mutations. Such mutations cause individuals to be somatic mosaics. Recent advances in genomic technology now allow measurement of somatic diversity. Initial studies confirmed the expected high levels of somatic mutations within individuals. Going forward, the big questions concern the degree to which those somatic mutations influence disease. Theory predicts that the frequency of mutant cells should vary greatly between individuals. Such somatic mutational variability between individuals could explain much of the diversity in the risk of disease. But how variable is mosaicism between individuals in reality? What is the relation between the fraction of cells carrying a predisposing mutation and the risk of disease? What kinds of heritable somatic change lead to disease besides classical DNA mutations? What molecular processes connect a predisposing somatic change to disease? We know that predisposing somatic mutations strongly influence the onset of cancer. Likewise, neurodegenerative diseases may often begin from somatically mutated cells. If so, both neurodegeneration and cancer may be diseases of later life for which much of the risk may be set by early life somatic mutations.