Current Pathobiology Reports

, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp 209–218 | Cite as

Cancer Foraging Ecology: Diet Choice, Patch Use, and Habitat Selection of Cancer Cells

  • Sarah R. Amend
  • Robert A. Gatenby
  • Kenneth J. Pienta
  • Joel S. BrownEmail author
The Evolutionary and Ecological Pathology of Cancer (C Maley, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on The Evolutionary and Ecological Pathology of Cancer


Purpose of Review

Here we connect theories of diet choice, patch use, and habitat selection with cancer biology. Key and only partially answered questions include: Do cancer cells’ uptake of nutrients conform to theory? What are the supply and total mass of resources within tumors? Can cancer cell foraging strategies provide indicators for tumor dynamics and therapies? We advocate for a new research subdiscipline of cancer foraging ecology.

Recent Findings

Foraging ecology studies feeding behaviors of organisms as adaptations. Virtually all of life exhibits adaptations relating to diet, patch use, and habitat selection. Cancer cells likely exhibit selective nutrient uptake (diet), local depletion of resources (patch use), and motility (habitat selection). In fact, the evolution of adaptive feeding strategies by cancer cells may be an additional hallmark of cancer. In aggregate, the feeding behaviors of cancer cells can be devastating—acidosis, hypoxia, cachexia, necrosis, tissue invasion, and metastasis. While these are well known, little is known regarding the nutrient uptake strategies of individual cancer cells. Foraging theory provides a strong theoretical basis for anticipating what cancer cells might do and how research on cancer foraging ecology—with impact on metastasis research and therapeutic intervention—should proceed.


Normal cells, as “servants” to the whole organism, should not conform to the principles of optimal foraging theory. Cancer cells in response to fluctuating resource supplies, nutrient limitations, and hazards should evolve resource acquisition strategies that are more optimal-foraging-like. Two areas of research make cancer foraging ecology a particularly propitious emerging field. From behavioral and evolutionary ecology, there is a well-developed body of theory suggesting how organisms, including cancer cells, should forage. From cancer cell metabolomics there is a large body of knowledge regarding how cancer cells process and utilize different nutrients as fuel, material, buffers and messenger molecules. We suggest the time is ripe for conjoining foraging ecology with cancer cell metabolomics.


Cancer Foraging ecology Consumer-resource dynamics Tumor ecosystems Diet choice Patch use Habitat selection Metabolomics 



We thank Chris Whelan and Mark Lloyd with insightful discussion and pointing us to important papers in the literature.

Funding Information

SRA is supported by American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship PF-16-025-01-CSM, a Prostate Cancer Foundation Young Investigator award and Patrick C. Walsh Prostate Cancer Research Award; KJP is supported by the NIH/NCI (CA093900 and U54CA210173) and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. JSB and RAG were supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 690817), the James S. McDonnell Foundation grant, “Cancer therapy: Perturbing a complex adaptive system,” a V Foundation grant, NIH/National Cancer Institute (NCI) R01CA170595, Application of Evolutionary Principles to Maintain Cancer Control (PQ21), and NIH/NCI U54CA143970-05 [Physical Science Oncology Network (PSON)] “Cancer as a complex adaptive system.”

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Sarah R. Amend, Robert A. Gatenby, Kenneth J. Pienta, and Joel S. Brown declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This review did not generate, use, or analyze any primary data with human or animal subjects.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah R. Amend
    • 1
  • Robert A. Gatenby
    • 2
  • Kenneth J. Pienta
    • 1
  • Joel S. Brown
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.The James Buchanan Brady Urological InstituteJohns Hopkins University School of MedicineBaltimoreUSA
  2. 2.Department of Integrated Mathematical OncologyMoffitt Cancer CenterTampaUSA

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