Elephants are much bigger than humans -- the largest land mammal on the planet, in fact -- with all those extra cells, science would tell us that they should get cancer a lot more frequently than humans. They don't. Elephants get cancer at staggeringly low rates. Only 5% of elephants die of cancer -- that's compared to a 25% mortality rate in humans. This fact has stumped scientists for decades but a new study published this week is finally shedding light on why elephants are so cancer-resistant.
It's called a Zombie gene and it's a pretty enviable trait. The Los Angeles Times describes it as "a gene that had gone dormant in their mammalian ancestors, but got turned back on as their evolving bodies grew ever bigger." In other words, their sheer amount of cells demanded an evolutionary response and it got turned on in the form of a gene that attacks cancer cells -- 20 of these genes, in fact.
Aside from giving us mere mortals another reason to be in awe of the African elephant, this discovery might have real implications for humans. If we can study the gene and create cancer drugs that mimic it, it could be a huge step forward in the fight against cancer. This type of win is a long ways off and by no means a certainty, but it does offer new promise.
Study author Vincent J. Lynch put it best when he told CNN, "Evolution has been at work evolving cancer-resistant organisms for ... millions of years. So why not just look to evolution to give us insight into how we might be able to do that?"