Selection for a dominant oncogene and large male size as a risk factor for melanoma in the Xiphophorus animal model



    1. Department of Carcinogenesis, The University of Texas—M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Science Park/Research Division, Smithville, TX, 78957, USA
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    1. Department of Microbiology and Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
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André A. Fernandez, Fax: +1 512 237 2437; E-mail:


Adult height is a risk factor in numerous human cancers that involve aberrant receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) signalling. However, its importance is debated due to conflicting epidemiological studies and the lack of useful in vivo models. In Xiphophorus fishes (Platyfishes/Swordtails), a functional RTK, Xiphophorus melanoma receptor kinase (Xmrk), serves as the dominant oncogene and has been maintained for several million years despite being deleterious and in an extremely unstable genomic region. Here we show that the Xmrk genotype is positively correlated with standard length in male and female wild caught Xiphophorus cortezi sampled throughout their phylogeographic distribution. Histopathology confirms the occurrence of malignant melanomas in both sexes; however, melanoma incidence was extremely male biased. Furthermore, males collected with malignant melanomas in the field were significantly larger than both Xmrk males collected without melanomas and wildtype (Xmrk deficient) males. These results not only provide a novel selective mechanism for the persistence of the germline Xmrk oncogene but also create an innovative avenue of melanoma research within the Xiphophorus fishes. Wildlife cancer in natural systems is a growing concern, therefore, future research investigating life history characteristics associated with certain phenotypes and genotypes that predispose an individual to cancer will be fundamental to increasing our understanding of the evolutionary biology of cancer in nature as well as in humans.