Do Insects Get Cancer? (Also, can they get drunk??)

Insects are often seen to be far more perseverant than human beings. After all, they form the largest biomass of terrestrial animals on earth.

And who has not heard the cliche of a post-apocalyptic world devoid of life except for cockroaches? But, however easily they are able to adapt to new environments and survive environmental catastrophes, what about insect life and illness?  

Do insects get cancer? Yes, since they are multicellular organisms, insects can get cancer. They are even often used in research about and studies with cancer cells. Nevertheless, in comparison to other animals, it is quite rare to simply happen upon an insect that has died or suffered severely from cancer.  

A reason why it is so rare to come across insects with cancer is their comparatively short life span. Cancer takes time to grow and develop, and insects simply mostly do not live long enough to develop cancer before they reach the end of their natural life – which, in extreme cases as that of a mayfly, might be even less than 24 hours – or die of other causes like being devoured by birds or fish.

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This does not mean, of course, that no insects die of illness at all. Malaria, for example, is an illness that is spread by mosquitoes that are infected with a fungus, and for most of these mosquitoes, this fungal infection is the cause of death. 

Some people still think that the size of an animal is the most significant factor in its chance of developing cancer. When it comes to human beings or dogs, for example, larger ones are slightly more susceptible to cancer. This principle does not prove true in general, though, and, some small animals like mice are extremely cancer-prone, whereas larger animals like elephants and whales rarely suffer from cancer. 

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Can Insects Get Drunk? 

Yes, they can, and often even actively seek out this state. Aside from consuming fermented fruits, they get at the alcohol by, for example, drinking what is left over in beer cans or bottles that have been thrown away. Entomologists who want to catch insects often trap them with offerings of beer or wine!  

study from 2012 found that male fruit flies are more attracted to alcohol when they have been sexually rejected. Not only do flies use alcohol as a sort of comfort, like humans often do, when they are drunk they even behave similarly to drunk humans – after an initial phase of being hyperactive, they get first disoriented, then uncoordinated, and finally pass out. The stages of inebriation are thus basically the same, no matter the size of the consumer. 

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Can All Animals Get Cancer? 

Most people are aware that when they smoke close to their pets like cats and dogs, the secondhand smoke will increase the animals’ risk of lung cancer. But with animals outside of those accompanying them as pets, most people are not as aware of the topic of cancer in animals.  

In general, every cell of an organism has the chance of becoming cancerous, and it follows, that all living organisms are theoretically susceptible to the evolution of cancer cells. Some animals, though, are especially good at the suppression of cancer and only get cancer very rarely or not at all. Only 5% of elephants, for example, die from cancer!

A reason for this was discovered in 2015 when researchers found that an elephant’s DNA contains a lot of copies of a cancer-fighting gene. Even less prone to cancer are bowhead whales, which initially seems counterintuitive. Not only are they bigger than most other animals, and thus contain more cells that could potentially develop cancer, they also live for over 200 years, which should give cancerous growths a lot of time to develop.

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The reason is, again, found in the genome, which, in the case of the bowhead whale, contains mutations that prevent the DNA from being damaged. 

Rodents, like mice, are generally quite prone to cancer, but there is one notable exception: the naked mole-rat has not yet been observed to develop a tumor! The reason for this is that naked mole rats produce a lot of high-molecular-mass hyaluronans. This molecule, researchers speculate, has originally evolved to lend these rodents a higher skin elasticity necessary for squeezing through their small underground tunnels, but it has the positive side-effect of leading to a higher resistance to cancer. 

Research with animals like these that are close to immune to cancer helps scientists to find and develop methods of fighting cancer in humans, too.