Science Questions

Can plants get cancer?

Sat, 15th Oct 2011

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Rob Barringer asked:

Can plants get cancer?


Chris -  Its an intriguing question.  The best way, I think, to answer this is to try and read what's behind that question and I believe that its getting at two aspects of disease.  (c) A. G. Matthysse, K. V. Holmes, R. H. G. Gurlitz

" alt="Agrobacterium tumefaciens bacteria" />One is proliferation of cells.  So do you get proliferation of cells in plants? Yes! Crown gall disease.  There's a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumofaciens, which inserts DNA sequences into plant genomes to trigger cell proliferation causing these galls to form on trees. So that's a similarity.

Secondly, do you get spread of cancer-like diseases throughout the entire plant, in the same way that cancers can spread - or metastasise - in humans? Well, many diseases, and particularly viral diseases, can become as we say systemic and spread throughout the organism; so multiple "tumours" could form, but this is not the same as cancerous tissue itself moving from one place to another in an organism.

So there are some similarities, but also some important differences.

Ben -   So its not quite as clear-cut.  There are clearly similar problems but they're not really directly comparable to the system we see in humans for example. 

Chris -   That's correct.


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As I understand it there are two sides to cancer - the initial cells going rogue and then the spread of the cancerous cells. In plants the second aspect is missing as the xylem/phloem carry nutrients but not cells. They are not the same as the lymphatic system which carries around cells and I believe are how cancers spread. In plants the cells tend to stay in a fixed position in the framework they are given.

So they may or may not go rogue but the spread of cells is limited. karmadillo, Mon, 26th Sep 2011

Apoptosis is your answer. Basically when plants have damaged/cancerous cells they can force the cell to commit suicide so as soon as there is a cancer in a cell the plant can destroy it before it spreads and causes widespread damage in the plant The science enthusiast, Wed, 5th Oct 2011

Burls are common.

Apparently they are generally considered benign growths, and may be from multiple causes from infectious to injuries to potentially a genetic anomaly.

One of the things mentioned is the movement of cells.

Humans have macrophages that can purposefully move through the blood vessels and lymphatic system, as well as entering tissues.  One of the hallmarks of metastatic cancer is essentially the ability for cancer cells to uninhibit the macrophage genes, and get the ability to move and invade other tissues. 

If plants and trees don't have the equivalent of macrophages, then it might make the difference between a benign tumor, and an invasive cancer, with the trees not having the ability for the tumor to invade distant tissues. CliffordK, Wed, 5th Oct 2011

Clifford, that's very interesting, I shall have to investigate further into any immune cells plants may have.

And science enthusiast, surely a cancerous cell by its very nature is one that can overcome apoptosis, there has to be loads of mutations of a cell in order for it to acquire cancerous properties, such as proliferation, the loss of apoptosis function, and quite a few other hurdles that would otherwise reduce the cell growth and cell death that would normally occur.

Of course, perhaps the apoptosis genes in plants are so sensitive that the smallest mutation in them causes the cell to die, I wouldn't know! Dimz, Thu, 6th Oct 2011

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