Can plants get cancer?

16 October 2011

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Question

Can plants get cancer?

Answer

Chris - It's 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 it's getting at two aspects of disease. 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 it's 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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