Elephants are big animals. It takes a lot of cells to make one—and more cells means there are more chances one could mutate and become cancerous, right?
Nope. Elephants certainly get cancer, but they die from it less frequently than humans do. A study published this month in the journal Cell Reports sheds some light on elephants' ability to protect themselves from cancer: a “zombie gene” that destroys cells with DNA damage.
“If (that cell) kills itself, then that damaged DNA never has the potential to eventually give rise to cancer,” evolutionary biologist and study author Vincent J. Lynch told CNN.
The gene, called LIF6, went dormant somewhere along the evolutionary road, but somehow revived itself in elephants with an on/off switch. In 2015, Lynch and his colleagues discovered elephants also have more copies of another anti-cancer gene, TP53.
When the TP53 gene finds damaged DNA, it turns on LIF6, which tears open the cell's mitochondria, letting toxic molecules pour into the cell.
“It might tell us something fundamental about cancer as a process. And if we're lucky, it might tell us something about how to treat human disease,” Lynch told the New York Times.