Transposable elements drive widespread expression of oncogenes in human cancers

Hyo Sik Jang, Nakul M. Shah, Alan Y. Du, Zea Z. Dailey, Erica C. Pehrsson, Paula M. Godoy, David Zhang, Daofeng Li, Xiaoyun Xing, Sungsu Kim, David O’Donnell, Jeffrey I. Gordon, Ting Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Transposable elements (TEs) are an abundant and rich genetic resource of regulatory sequences1–3. Cryptic regulatory elements within TEs can be epigenetically reactivated in cancer to influence oncogenesis in a process termed onco-exaptation4. However, the prevalence and impact of TE onco-exaptation events across cancer types are poorly characterized. Here, we analyzed 7,769 tumors and 625 normal datasets from 15 cancer types, identifying 129 TE cryptic promoter-activation events involving 106 oncogenes across 3,864 tumors. Furthermore, we interrogated the AluJb-LIN28B candidate: the genetic deletion of the TE eliminated oncogene expression, while dynamic DNA methylation modulated promoter activity, illustrating the necessity and sufficiency of a TE for oncogene activation. Collectively, our results characterize the global profile of TE onco-exaptation and highlight this prevalent phenomenon as an important mechanism for promiscuous oncogene activation and ultimately tumorigenesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)611-617
Number of pages7
JournalNature Genetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019


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