We already know that elephants live longer than humans, commonly passing the 100-year mark, but also that these large animals are rarely developing cancer. However, a recent study claims it has the answer to why there is such a low cancer incidence among them. Accordingly, a so-called “zombie” gene is what protect the elephants from cancer.
In comparison to humans, where one in two individuals will get cancer at one time in life, only 5% of the elephants present cancer risks. This very fact puzzled the scientists who believed that these giant animals, which have so many more cells that could turn into tumors, compared to humans, should be more exposed to cancer.
In reality, the situation is entirely different, as the elephants possess a unique gene that makes them safe from cancer. We’re talking about the “zombie” gene, as the researchers nicknamed it.
The “zombie” gene in elephants and how it protects these giant animals from cancer
As mentioned above, the “zombie” gene is what protects the elephants from getting cancer, but it’s not working alone.
The elephants have 20 copies of a special gene known as p53, while humans have only one copy. According to the researchers, this p53 gene permits the organism to “see” the damaged DNA within cells and then to destroy these pre-cancer cells. As the elephants have more copies of this gene, these giant animals are more capable of regulating their cells in comparison to humans.
While exploring the functions of the p53 gene, the scientists observed another one known as leukemia inhibitory factor 6 (LIF6) which, until now, was thought to be an imperfect copy of another gene that has no function. However, the researchers discovered that, in elephants, LIF6 was a “zombie” gene as it came back to life.
Accordingly, when p53 pinpoints DNA damage, LIF6 generates a protein that moves straight to the mitochondria of the DNA-damaged cell causing the death of that specific cell.
“There are probably lots of things which can contribute to augmented cancer resistance, and we found one of them in elephants. And when you add all those things together, you end up with a super cancer-resistant elephant,” concluded Vincent Lynch, the study’s leading author.