Evidence that noncoding mutation can result in cancer driver events is mounting. However, it is more difficult to assign molecular biological consequences to noncoding mutations than to coding mutations, and a typical cancer genome contains many more noncoding mutations than protein-coding mutations. Accordingly, parsing functional noncoding mutation signal from noise remains an important challenge. Here we use an empirical approach to identify putatively functional noncoding somatic single nucleotide variants (SNVs) from liver cancer genomes. Annotation of candidate variants by publicly available epigenome datasets finds that 40.5% of SNVs fall in regulatory elements. When assigned to specific regulatory elements, we find that the distribution of regulatory element mutation mirrors that of nonsynonymous coding mutation, where few regulatory elements are recurrently mutated in a patient population but many are singly mutated. We find potential gain-of-binding site events among candidate SNVs, suggesting a mechanism of action for these variants. When aggregating noncoding somatic mutation in promoters, we find that genes in the ERBB signaling and MAPK signaling pathways are significantly enriched for promoter mutations. Altogether, our results suggest that functional somatic SNVs in cancer are sporadic, but occasionally occur in regulatory elements and may affect phenotype by creating binding sites for transcriptional regulators. Accordingly, we propose that noncoding mutation should be formally accounted for when determining gene-and pathway-mutation burden in cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0174032
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017


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