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  • Writer's pictureSinead Mackintosh

Zombie Elephants!

As if this year couldn’t get any crazier! Well, actually, I am only bringing this up now; the information about zombie elephants has been around since 2018, but it’s still crazy. Vazquez et al. discovered the “Zombie LIF gene” in elephants. This gene is thought to protect elephants from developing cancer, as only 5% of elephants die from cancer, compared to the higher rate of 11-15% of humans. All mammals have the LIF gene, which helps prevent tumours, but the number of LIF genes differs between animals. Humans only have one LIF gene, but elephants have 10! However, out of these 10, only one (LIF6) is actually functional. The other nine gene copies are “dead” because they are missing essential parts of DNA, but somehow the LIF6 gene turned back on or “rose from the dead”! Scientists aren’t sure why or when (maybe over 59 million years ago) this happened, but the “zombie gene” helps to kill cancer cells. The gene does this through apoptosis (programmed cell death), where it finds cancer cells and signals for them to self-destruct basically. This handy advantage could have contributed to the evolution of enhanced cancer resistance in the elephant family and, therefore, the evolution of larger bodies and longer life spans!

Naturally, scientists want to see if we can use this to design drugs to treat cancer. This would be really cool but trying to mimic the zombie gene is rather tricky and might not work. But this is still a cool fact to bring up next time you are on safari!

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