Long interspersed nuclear element-1 (LINE-1 or L1) retrotransposons are normally suppressed in somatic tissues mainly due to DNA methylation and antiviral defense. However, the mechanism to suppress L1s may be disrupted in cancers, thus allowing L1s to act as insertional mutagens and cause genomic rearrangement and instability. Whereas the frequency of somatic L1 insertions varies greatly among individual tumors, much remains to be learned about underlying genetic, cellular, or environmental factors. Here, we report multiple correlates of L1 activity in stomach, colorectal, and esophageal tumors through an integrative analysis of cancer whole genome and matched RNA sequencing profiles. Clinical indicators of tumor progression, such as tumor grade and patient age, showed positive association. A potential L1 expression suppressor, TP53, was mutated in tumors with frequent L1 insertions. We characterized the effects of somatic L1 insertions on mRNA splicing and expression, and demonstrated an increased risk of gene disruption in retrotransposition-prone cancers. In particular, we found that a cancer-specific L1 insertion in an exon of MOV10, a key L1 suppressor, caused exon skipping and decreased expression of the affected allele due to nonsense-mediated decay in a tumor with a high L1 insertion load. Importantly, tumors with high immune activity, for example, those associated with Epstein-Barr virus infection or microsatellite instability, tended to carry a low number of L1 insertions in genomes with high expression levels of L1 suppressors such as APOBEC3s and SAMHD1. Our results indicate that cancer immunity may contribute to genome stability by suppressing L1 retrotransposition in gastrointestinal cancers.
Keywords: LINE-1 retrotransposition, cancer immunity, gastrointestinal cancer