Recursive causality in evolution: a model for epigenetic mechanisms in cancer development

A Haslberger, F Varga, H Karlic
Medical Hypotheses 2006, 67 (6): 1448-54
Interactions between adaptative and selective processes are illustrated in the model of recursive causality as defined in Rupert Riedl's systems theory of evolution. One of the main features of this theory also termed as theory of evolving complexity is the centrality of the notion of 'recursive' or 'feedback' causality - 'the idea that every biological effect in living systems, in some way, feeds back to its own cause'. Our hypothesis is that "recursive" or "feedback" causality provides a model for explaining the consequences of interacting genetic and epigenetic mechanisms which are known to play a key role in development of cancer. Epigenetics includes any process that alters gene activity without changes of the DNA sequence. The most important epigenetic mechanisms are DNA-methylation and chromatin remodeling. Hypomethylation of so-called oncogenes and hypermethylation of tumor suppressor genes appear to be critical determinants of cancer. Folic acid, vitamin B12 and other nutrients influence the function of enzymes that participate in various methylation processes by affecting the supply of methyl groups into a variety of molecules which may be directly or indirectly associated with cancerogenesis. We present an example from our own studies by showing that vitamin D3 has the potential to de-methylate the osteocalcin-promoter in MG63 osteosarcoma cells. Consequently, a stimulation of osteocalcin synthesis can be observed. The above mentioned enzymes also play a role in development and differentiation of cells and organisms and thus illustrate the close association between evolutionary and developmental mechanisms. This enabled new ways to understand the interaction between the genome and environment and may improve biomedical concepts including environmental health aspects where epigenetic and genetic modifications are closely associated. Recent observations showed that methylated nucleotides in the gene promoter may serve as a target for solar UV-induced mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene. This illustrates the close interaction of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in cancerogenesis resulting from changes in transcriptional regulation and its contribution to a phenotype at the micro- or macroevolutionary level. Above-mentioned interactions of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in oncogenesis defy explanation by plain linear causality, things like the continuing adaptability of complex systems. They can be explained by the concept of recursive causality and has introduced molecular biology into the realm of cognition science and systems theory: based on the notion of so-called feedback- or recursive causality a model for epigenetic mechanisms with relevance for oncology and biomedicine is provided.

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