Research Article

The chromatin accessibility landscape of primary human cancers

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Science  26 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6413, eaav1898
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav1898

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Cancer chromatin accessibility landscape

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) provides a high-quality resource of molecular data on a large variety of human cancers. Corces et al. used a recently modified assay to profile chromatin accessibility to determine the accessible chromatin landscape in 410 TCGA samples from 23 cancer types (see the Perspective by Taipale). When the data were integrated with other omics data available for the same tumor samples, inherited risk loci for cancer predisposition were revealed, transcription factors and enhancers driving molecular subtypes of cancer with patient survival differences were identified, and noncoding mutations associated with clinical prognosis were discovered.

Science, this issue p. eaav1898; see also p. 401

Structured Abstract


Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Although the 2% of the human genome that encodes proteins has been extensively studied, much remains to be learned about the noncoding genome and gene regulation in cancer. Genes are turned on and off in the proper cell types and cell states by transcription factor (TF) proteins acting on DNA regulatory elements that are scattered over the vast noncoding genome and exert long-range influences. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a global consortium that aims to accelerate the understanding of the molecular basis of cancer. TCGA has systematically collected DNA mutation, methylation, RNA expression, and other comprehensive datasets from primary human cancer tissue. TCGA has served as an invaluable resource for the identification of genomic aberrations, altered transcriptional networks, and cancer subtypes. Nonetheless, the gene regulatory landscapes of these tumors have largely been inferred through indirect means.


A hallmark of active DNA regulatory elements is chromatin accessibility. Eukaryotic genomes are compacted in chromatin, a complex of DNA and proteins, and only the active regulatory elements are accessible by the cell’s machinery such as TFs. The assay for transposase-accessible chromatin using sequencing (ATAC-seq) quantifies DNA accessibility through the use of transposase enzymes that insert sequencing adapters at these accessible chromatin sites. ATAC-seq enables the genome-wide profiling of TF binding events that orchestrate gene expression programs and give a cell its identity.


We generated high-quality ATAC-seq data in 410 tumor samples from TCGA, identifying diverse regulatory landscapes across 23 cancer types. These chromatin accessibility profiles identify cancer- and tissue-specific DNA regulatory elements that enable classification of tumor subtypes with newly recognized prognostic importance. We identify distinct TF activities in cancer based on differences in the inferred patterns of TF-DNA interaction and gene expression. Genome-wide correlation of gene expression and chromatin accessibility predicts tens of thousands of putative interactions between distal regulatory elements and gene promoters, including key oncogenes and targets in cancer immunotherapy, such as MYC, SRC, BCL2, and PDL1. Moreover, these regulatory interactions inform known genetic risk loci linked to cancer predisposition, nominating biochemical mechanisms and target genes for many cancer-linked genetic variants. Lastly, integration with mutation profiling by whole-genome sequencing identifies cancer-relevant noncoding mutations that are associated with altered gene expression. A single-base mutation located 12 kilobases upstream of the FGD4 gene, a regulator of the actin cytoskeleton, generates a putative de novo binding site for an NKX TF and is associated with an increase in chromatin accessibility and a concomitant increase in FGD4 gene expression.


The accessible genome of primary human cancers provides a wealth of information on the susceptibility, mechanisms, prognosis, and potential therapeutic strategies of diverse cancer types. Prediction of interactions between DNA regulatory elements and gene promoters sets the stage for future integrative gene regulatory network analyses. The discovery of hundreds of noncoding somatic mutations that exhibit allele-specific regulatory effects suggests a pervasive mechanism for cancer cells to manipulate gene expression and increase cellular fitness. These data may serve as a foundational resource for the cancer research community.

Cancer gene regulatory landscape.

Chromatin accessibility profiling of 23 human cancer types (left) in 410 tumor samples from TCGA revealed 562,709 DNA regulatory elements. The activity of these DNA elements organized cancer subtypes, identified TF proteins and regulatory elements controlling cancer gene expression, and suggested molecular mechanisms for cancer-associated inherited variants and somatic mutations in the noncoding genome. See main article for abbreviations of cancer types. Ref., reference; Var., variant.


We present the genome-wide chromatin accessibility profiles of 410 tumor samples spanning 23 cancer types from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). We identify 562,709 transposase-accessible DNA elements that substantially extend the compendium of known cis-regulatory elements. Integration of ATAC-seq (the assay for transposase-accessible chromatin using sequencing) with TCGA multi-omic data identifies a large number of putative distal enhancers that distinguish molecular subtypes of cancers, uncovers specific driving transcription factors via protein-DNA footprints, and nominates long-range gene-regulatory interactions in cancer. These data reveal genetic risk loci of cancer predisposition as active DNA regulatory elements in cancer, identify gene-regulatory interactions underlying cancer immune evasion, and pinpoint noncoding mutations that drive enhancer activation and may affect patient survival. These results suggest a systematic approach to understanding the noncoding genome in cancer to advance diagnosis and therapy.

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