Embryonic Stem Cell (ES)-Specific Enhancers Specify the Expression Potential of ES Genes in Cancer


Cancers often display gene expression profiles resembling those of undifferentiated cells. The mechanisms controlling these expression programs have yet to be identified. Exploring transcriptional enhancers throughout hematopoietic cell development and derived cancers, we uncovered a novel class of regulatory epigenetic mutations. These epimutations are particularly enriched in a group of enhancers, designated ES-specific enhancers (ESSEs) of the hematopoietic cell lineage. We found that hematopoietic ESSEs are prone to DNA methylation changes, indicative of their chromatin activity states. Strikingly, ESSE methylation is associated with gene transcriptional activity in cancer. Methylated ESSEs are hypermethylated in cancer relative to normal somatic cells and co-localized with silenced genes, whereas unmethylated ESSEs tend to be hypomethylated in cancer and associated with reactivated genes. Constitutive or hematopoietic stem cell-specific enhancers do not show these trends, suggesting selective reactivation of ESSEs in cancer. Further analyses of a hypomethylated ESSE downstream to the VEGFA gene revealed a novel regulatory circuit affecting VEGFA transcript levels across cancers and patients. We suggest that the discovered enhancer sites provide a framework for reactivation of ES genes in cancer.

PLoS Genetics
Dvir Aran
Dvir Aran

Computational Biologist, analyzing single-cell RNA-seq and clinical data in cancer and other diseases.