RSB Directors Seminar: The importance of cancer cells for animal evolutionary ecology

Similar to parasites, malignant cells exploit the host for energy, resources and protection, thereby impairing host health and fitness. Despite cancer being widespread in the animal kingdom, its impact on life history traits and strategies have rarely been documented. Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a transmissible cancer, afflicting Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), provides an ideal model system to monitor the impact of cancer on host life-history, and to elucidate the evolutionary arms-race between malignant cells and their hosts. First I will provide an overview of cancer being a selective force in the wild, then focus on the phenotypic and genetic evolution of Tasmanian devils in the face of DFTD. I will conclude that, akin to parasites, cancer can directly and indirectly affect LH traits and trigger host evolutionary responses. Consequently, it is important to consider oncogenic processes as selective force in wildlife.

Beata Ujvari, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Bioinformatics and Genetics at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University, Australia. As an evolutionary ecologist, her research focuses on the interaction between organisms and their environment and these effects on organismal fitness, particularly with the aim to explore the significance of genetic and epigenetic organismal responses to both macro- and micro environmental challenges. She has authored more than 100 refereed journal articles, 5 book chapters including multidisciplinary topics such as evolution, animal behavior, genetics and ecology as they relate to cancer. Dr Ujvari has edited the first textbook on the topic of Ecology and Evolution of Cancer, published by Academic Press in 2017. She has also established and chaired the Comparative Oncology Special Interest Group, Cancer Research Network at the University of Sydney (2012- 2014).