Cancer and Metastasis Reviews

, Volume 32, Issue 3–4, pp 423–448 | Cite as

Genetic and non-genetic instability in tumor progression: link between the fitness landscape and the epigenetic landscape of cancer cells



Genetic instability is invoked in explaining the cell phenotype changes that take place during cancer progression. However, the coexistence of a vast diversity of distinct clones, most prominently visible in the form of non-clonal chromosomal aberrations, suggests that Darwinian selection of mutant cells is not operating at maximal efficacy. Conversely, non-genetic instability of cancer cells must also be considered. Such mutation-independent instability of cell states is most prosaically manifest in the phenotypic heterogeneity within clonal cell populations or in the reversible switching between immature “cancer stem cell-like” and more differentiated states. How are genetic and non-genetic instability related to each other? Here, we review basic theoretical foundations and offer a dynamical systems perspective in which cancer is the inevitable pathological manifestation of modes of malfunction that are immanent to the complex gene regulatory network of the genome. We explain in an accessible, qualitative, and permissively simplified manner the mathematical basis for the “epigenetic landscape” and how the latter relates to the better known “fitness landscape.” We show that these two classical metaphors have a formal basis. By combining these two landscape concepts, we unite development and somatic evolution as the drivers of the relentless increase in malignancy. Herein, the cancer cells are pushed toward cancer attractors in the evolutionarily unused regions of the epigenetic landscape that encode more and more “dedifferentiated” states as a consequence of both genetic (mutagenic) and non-genetic (regulatory) perturbations—including therapy. This would explain why for the cancer cell, the principle of “What does not kill me makes me stronger” is as much a driving force in tumor progression and development of drug resistance as the simple principle of “survival of the fittest.”


Gene instability non-genetic heterogeneity Cancer stem cell Cancer attractor Plasticity Epigenetic landscape 


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Systems BiologySeattleUSA

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