Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will explore the following question:

  • What causes uncontrolled cell growth, and why does it often cause cancer?

Connection for AP® Courses

Connection for AP® Courses

Cancer results from unchecked cell division caused by a breakdown of the mechanisms that regulate the cell cycle. The loss of control begins with a change in the DNA sequence of a gene that codes for one of the regulatory molecules. Faulty instructions lead to a protein that does not function as it should. One culprit that has been identified is the p53 protein (coded for by the p53 gene), a major regulator at the G1 checkpoint. Normally, p53 proteins monitor DNA. If they find cells with damaged DNA, p53 will trigger repair mechanisms or destroy the cells, thus suppressing the formation of a tumor. However, mutations in p53 can result in abnormal p53 proteins that fail to stop cell division if the cell’s DNA is damaged. This results in an increased number of mutations, leading to abnormal daughter cells. Eventually, all checkpoints in the cell become nonfunctional, and the abnormal cells can crowd out normal cells.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts and Learning Objectives outlined in Big Idea 3 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework, as shown in the table. The Learning Objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® exam questions. A Learning Objective merges required content with one or more of the seven Science Practices.

Big Idea 3 Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.
Enduring Understanding 3.A Heritable information provides for continuity of life.
Essential Knowledge 3.A.2 In eukaryotes, heritable information is passed to the next generation via processes that include the cell cycle and mitosis or meiosis plus fertilization.
Science Practice 6.4 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.
Learning Objective 3.7 The student can make predictions about natural phenomena occurring during the cell cycle.

The Science Practices Assessment Ancillary contains additional test questions for this section that will help you prepare for the AP exam. These questions address the following standards:

  • [APLO 2.32]
  • [APLO 2.34]
  • [APLO 3.6]
  • [APLO 3.7]
  • [APLO 3.8]
  • [APLO 4.6]
  • [APLO 4.14]
  • [APLO 4.22]

Cancer comprises many different diseases caused by a common mechanism—uncontrolled cell growth. Despite the redundancy and overlapping levels of cell cycle control, errors do occur. One of the critical processes monitored by the cell cycle checkpoint surveillance mechanism is the proper replication of DNA during the S phase. Even when all of the cell cycle controls are fully functional, a small percentage of replication errors (mutations) will be passed on to the daughter cells. If changes to the DNA nucleotide sequence occur within a coding portion of a gene and are not corrected, a gene mutation results. All cancers start when a gene mutation gives rise to a faulty protein that plays a key role in cell reproduction. The change in the cell that results from the malformed protein may be minor—perhaps a slight delay in the binding of Cdk to cyclin or an Rb protein that detaches from its target DNA while still phosphorylated. Even minor mistakes, however, may allow subsequent mistakes to occur more readily. Over and over, small uncorrected errors are passed from the parent cell to the daughter cells and amplified as each generation produces more non-functional proteins from uncorrected DNA damage. Eventually, the pace of the cell cycle speeds up as the effectiveness of the control and repair mechanisms decreases. Uncontrolled growth of the mutated cells outpaces the growth of normal cells in the area, and a tumor (-oma) can result.



The genes that code for the positive cell cycle regulators are called proto-oncogenes. Proto-oncogenes are normal genes that, when mutated in certain ways, become oncogenes, genes that cause a cell to become cancerous. Consider what might happen to the cell cycle in a cell with a recently acquired oncogene. In most instances, the alteration of the DNA sequence will result in a less functional (or nonfunctional) protein. The result is detrimental to the cell and will likely prevent the cell from completing the cell cycle; however, the organism is not harmed because the mutation will not be carried forward. If a cell cannot reproduce, the mutation is not propagated and the damage is minimal. Occasionally, however, a gene mutation causes a change that increases the activity of a positive regulator. For example, a mutation that allows Cdk to be activated without being partnered with cyclin could push the cell cycle past a checkpoint before all of the required conditions are met. If the resulting daughter cells are too damaged to undergo further cell divisions, the mutation would not be propagated and no harm would come to the organism. However, if the atypical daughter cells are able to undergo further cell divisions, subsequent generations of cells will probably accumulate even more mutations, some possibly in additional genes that regulate the cell cycle.

The Cdk gene in the above example is only one of many genes that are considered proto-oncogenes. In addition to the cell cycle regulatory proteins, any protein that influences the cycle can be altered in such a way as to override cell cycle checkpoints. An oncogene is any gene that, when altered, leads to an increase in the rate of cell cycle progression.

Tumor Suppressor Genes

Tumor Suppressor Genes

Like proto-oncogenes, many of the negative cell cycle regulatory proteins were discovered in cells that had become cancerous. Tumor suppressor genes are segments of DNA that code for negative regulator proteins, the type of regulators that, when activated, can prevent the cell from undergoing uncontrolled division. The collective function of the best-understood tumor suppressor gene proteins, Rb, p53, and p21, is to put up a roadblock to cell cycle progression until certain events are completed. A cell that carries a mutated form of a negative regulator might not be able to halt the cell cycle if there is a problem. Tumor suppressors are similar to brakes in a vehicle: Malfunctioning brakes can contribute to a car crash.

Mutated p53 genes have been identified in more than one-half of all human tumor cells. This discovery is not surprising in light of the multiple roles that the p53 protein plays at the G1 checkpoint. A cell with a faulty p53 may fail to detect errors present in the genomic DNA (Figure 10.16). Even if a partially functional p53 does identify the mutations, it may no longer be able to signal the necessary DNA repair enzymes. Either way, damaged DNA will remain uncorrected. At this point, a functional p53 will deem the cell unsalvageable and trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis). The damaged version of p53 found in cancer cells, however, cannot trigger apoptosis.

Visual Connection

Part a: This illustration shows cell cycle regulation by normal p53, which arrests the cell cycle in response to DNA damage, cell cycle abnormalities, or hypoxia. Once the damage is repaired, the cell cycle restarts. If the damage cannot be repaired, apoptosis (programmed cell death) occurs. Part b: Mutated p53 does not arrest the cell cycle in response to cellular damage. As a result, the cell cycle continues, and the cell may become cancerous.
Figure 10.16 The role of normal p53 is to monitor DNA and the supply of oxygen (hypoxia is a condition of reduced oxygen supply). If damage is detected, p53 triggers repair mechanisms. If repairs are unsuccessful, p53 signals apoptosis. A cell with an abnormal p53 protein cannot repair damaged DNA and thus cannot signal apoptosis. Cells with abnormal p53 can become cancerous. (credit: modification of work by Thierry Soussi)
Human papillomavirus can cause cervical cancer. The virus encodes E6, a protein that binds p53. Based on this fact and what you know about p53, what effect do you think E6 binding has on p53 activity?
  1. E6 activates p53
  2. E6 inactivates p53
  3. E6 mutates p53
  4. E6 binding marks p53 for degradation

The loss of p53 function has other repercussions for the cell cycle. Mutated p53 might lose its ability to trigger p21 production. Without adequate levels of p21, there is no effective block on Cdk activation. Essentially, without a fully functional p53, the G1 checkpoint is severely compromised and the cell proceeds directly from G1 to S regardless of internal and external conditions. At the completion of this shortened cell cycle, two daughter cells are produced that have inherited the mutated p53 gene. Given the nonoptimal conditions under which the parent cell reproduced, it is likely that the daughter cells will have acquired other mutations in addition to the faulty tumor suppressor gene. Cells such as these daughter cells quickly accumulate both oncogenes and nonfunctional tumor suppressor genes. Again, the result is tumor growth.

Link to Learning

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Go to this website to watch an animation of how cancer results from errors in the cell cycle.

Treating cancer can be described as a fight against natural biologic processes. Explain what this means in terms of tumor formation.
  1. Cancer forms when natural defenses are inhibited and cells divide uncontrollably.
  2. Mutated cells undergo apoptosis, causing cells to divide uncontrollably.
  3. Cancer treatment would require inhibiting apoptosis which is a natural defense.
  4. In cancerous cells, apoptosis occurs.

Science Practice Connection for AP® Courses

Think About It

Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. The virus encodes E6, a protein that binds p53. Predict the most likely effect of E6 binding on p53 activity, and explain the basis for your prediction.


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