Seed vs. soil, with some fungus thrown in

Enlarge (credit: US National Park Service)

The new trend in cancer research is to view a tumor’s malignancy not as solely determined by the tumor’s damaged genome. That view may be somewhat intuitive and has been dominant for decades, but there’s evidence that a cancer’s behavior is determined by the interplay between the tumor itself (the seed) and the environment in which it resides (the soil). Doctors have long observed that the “same” tumor acts differently in different people and in different organs within the same person; this new paradigm could begin to explain why.

A key part of that environment are its microorganisms. Recent results show that microbes associated with tumors can metabolize the chemotherapy meant to treat the cancer. And this week, we’re learning that microbes also influence the original seed-and-soil—the non-metaphorical one involving actual plants.

It’s not only a plant’s genetic makeup that dictates whether it will thrive in a given environment; that environment, and the way each plant interacts with it, is critical. This idea was reinforced through a study that used pinyon pines, combining controlled experiments in a greenhouse and garden with observational studies of trees in the wild, made over 20 years (the latter 10 of which included a drought). Results from the different venues corroborated each other.

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