Mutational signatures associated with tobacco smoking in human cancer

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Science  04 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6312, pp. 618-622
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag0299

Assessing smoke damage in cancer genomes

We have known for over 60 years that smoking tobacco is one of the most avoidable risk factors for cancer. Yet the detailed mechanisms by which tobacco smoke damages the genome and creates the mutations that ultimately cause cancer are still not fully understood. Alexandrov et al. examined mutational signatures and DNA methylation changes in over 5000 genome sequences from 17 different cancer types linked to smoking (see the Perspective by Pfeifer). They found a complex pattern of mutational signatures. Only cancers originating in tissues directly exposed to smoke showed a signature characteristic of the known tobacco carcinogen benzo[a]pyrene. One mysterious signature was shared by all smoking-associated cancers but is of unknown origin. Smoking had only a modest effect on DNA methylation.

Science, this issue p. 618; see also p. 549


Tobacco smoking increases the risk of at least 17 classes of human cancer. We analyzed somatic mutations and DNA methylation in 5243 cancers of types for which tobacco smoking confers an elevated risk. Smoking is associated with increased mutation burdens of multiple distinct mutational signatures, which contribute to different extents in different cancers. One of these signatures, mainly found in cancers derived from tissues directly exposed to tobacco smoke, is attributable to misreplication of DNA damage caused by tobacco carcinogens. Others likely reflect indirect activation of DNA editing by APOBEC cytidine deaminases and of an endogenous clocklike mutational process. Smoking is associated with limited differences in methylation. The results are consistent with the proposition that smoking increases cancer risk by increasing the somatic mutation load, although direct evidence for this mechanism is lacking in some smoking-related cancer types.

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