Wellcome: Cigarette poster

We’re just dipping our toes into the oceans of information from large-scale genome sequencing. We’re at the point now where sequencing a human genome is, not routine, but not extraordinary. The most recent examples of this are two groups who sequenced the genome of a cancer (one group did a lung cancer, the other did a melanoma), and compared to the person’s normal cells. 1   This lets you see where the cancer cells are mutated.

How many mutations are there in a cancer? We already know that cancer is a multi-step process, involving probably at least 7 or 8 distinct stages. We also know that cancer cells have far more mutations than are needed for these minimals steps. How many is “more”?

  • Over 20,000 mutations – 23,000 mutations in the lung cancer, 33,000 in the skin cancer.

Where did these mutations come from? What drives mutagenesis in a cancer cell?

  • Cigarettes and UV light. They can point out the typical kinds of mutagenesis for each and show that the lung cancer mutations are tobacco-induced, the skin cancer mutations are UV-induced.

How often do cigarettes cause mutations?

  • “… an average of one mutation for every 15 cigarettes smoked.”

(I question this figure, or rather, question whether the implied causation is that direct. But it’s not impossible, given their data.)  From an immunological viewpoint, the 20,000 mutations is interesting because it suggests that cancers should have lots of targets for the immune system. This was already pretty clear, but this helps nail it down.

(By the way, the poster at the top, like the research in question, comes from the Wellcome Trust Institute.)


  1. Pleasance, E., Stephens, P., O’Meara, S., McBride, D., Meynert, A., Jones, D., Lin, M., Beare, D., Lau, K., Greenman, C., Varela, I., Nik-Zainal, S., Davies, H., Ordoñez, G., Mudie, L., Latimer, C., Edkins, S., Stebbings, L., Chen, L., Jia, M., Leroy, C., Marshall, J., Menzies, A., Butler, A., Teague, J., Mangion, J., Sun, Y., McLaughlin, S., Peckham, H., Tsung, E., Costa, G., Lee, C., Minna, J., Gazdar, A., Birney, E., Rhodes, M., McKernan, K., Stratton, M., Futreal, P., & Campbell, P. (2009). A small-cell lung cancer genome with complex signatures of tobacco exposure Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08629

    Pleasance, E., Cheetham, R., Stephens, P., McBride, D., Humphray, S., Greenman, C., Varela, I., Lin, M., Ordóñez, G., Bignell, G., Ye, K., Alipaz, J., Bauer, M., Beare, D., Butler, A., Carter, R., Chen, L., Cox, A., Edkins, S., Kokko-Gonzales, P., Gormley, N., Grocock, R., Haudenschild, C., Hims, M., James, T., Jia, M., Kingsbury, Z., Leroy, C., Marshall, J., Menzies, A., Mudie, L., Ning, Z., Royce, T., Schulz-Trieglaff, O., Spiridou, A., Stebbings, L., Szajkowski, L., Teague, J., Williamson, D., Chin, L., Ross, M., Campbell, P., Bentley, D., Futreal, P., & Stratton, M. (2009). A comprehensive catalogue of somatic mutations from a human cancer genome Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08658 []