A population genetics perspective on the determinants of intra-tumor heterogeneity.
A tumour is a heterogeneous population of cells that competes for limited resources. In the clinic, we typically probe the tumour by biopsy, and then characterize it by the dominant genetic clone. But genotypes are only the first link in the chain of hierarchical events that leads to a specific cell phenotype. The relationship between genotype and phenotype is not simple, and the so-called genotype to phenotype map is poorly understood. Many genotypes can produce the same phenotype, so genetic heterogeneity may not translate directly to phenotypic heterogeneity. We therefore choose to focus on the functional endpoint, the phenotype as defined by a collection of cellular traits (e.g. proliferative and migratory ability). Here, we will examine how phenotypic heterogeneity evolves in space and time and how the way in which phenotypes are inherited will drive this evolution. A tumour can be thought of as an ecosystem, which critically means that we cannot just consider it as a collection of mutated cells but more as a complex system of many interacting cellular and microenvironmental elements. At its simplest, a growing tumour with increased proliferation capacity must compete for space as a limited resource. Hypercellularity leads to a contact-inhibited core with a competitive proliferating rim. Evolution and selection occurs, and an individual cell's capacity to survive and propagate is determined by its combination of traits and interaction with the environment. With heterogeneity in phenotypes, the clone that will dominate is not always obvious as there are both local interactions and global pressures. Several combinations of phenotypes can coexist, changing the fitness of the whole. To understand some aspects of heterogeneity in a growing tumour, we build an off-lattice agent-based model consisting of individual cells with assigned trait values for proliferation and migration rates. We represent heterogeneity in these traits with frequency distributions and combinations of traits with density maps. How the distributions change over time is dependent on how traits are passed on to progeny cells, which is our main enquiry. We bypass the translation of genetics to behaviour by focusing on the functional end result of inheritance of the phenotype combined with the environmental influence of limited space.