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Any replicating system in which heritable variants with differing replicative potentials can arise is subject to a Darwinian evolutionary process. The continually replicating adult tissue stem cells that control the integrity of many tissues of long-lived, multicellular, complex vertebrate organisms, including humans, constitute such a replicating system. Our suggestion is that somatic selection for mutations (or stable epigenetic changes) that cause an increased rate of adult tissue stem cell proliferation, and their long-term persistence, at the expense of normal differentiation, is a major key to the ageing process. Once an organism has passed the reproductive age, there is no longer any significant counterselection at the organismal level to this inevitable cellular level Darwinian process.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of theoretical biology

Publication Date





Department of Oncology, Cancer and Immunogenetics Laboratory, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom. Electronic address: