A type of biological "explosion" that tears chromosomes apart can cause cancer to appear out of nowhere, according to researchers.
A study by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute highlighted a phenomenon called chromothripsis - a "shattering" of chromosomes. In this process, genetic material is essentially torn apart, often leading to genetic mistakes which can, in turn, cause cancer.
While in many cases cancer appears to develop gradually as cells become increasingly abnormal, chromothripsis means that the disease can seem to take hold very quickly.
Study leader Dr Peter Campbell, from the Sanger Institute, said: "It seems that in a single cell in a single event, one or more chromosomes basically explode - literally into hundreds of fragments. In some instances - the cancer cases - our DNA repair machinery tries to stick the chromosomes back together but gets it disastrously wrong. Out of the hundreds of mutations that result, several promote the development of cancer."
Co-author Professor Mike Stratton, Director of the Sanger Institute: "The evidence suggests that a single cellular crisis shatters a chromosome or chromosomes, and that the DNA repair machinery pastes them back together in a highly erroneous order."
The study's findings are published in the journal Cell.