Tumor-initiating stem cells (SCs) exhibit distinct patterns of transcription factors and gene expression compared to healthy counterparts. Here, we show that dramatic shifts in large open-chromatin domain (super-enhancer) landscapes underlie these differences and reflect tumor microenvironment. By in vivo super-enhancer and transcriptional profiling, we uncover a dynamic cancer-specific epigenetic network selectively enriched for binding motifs of a transcription factor cohort expressed in squamous cell carcinoma SCs (SCC-SCs). Many of their genes, including Ets2 and Elk3, are themselves regulated by SCC-SC super-enhancers suggesting a cooperative feed-forward loop. Malignant progression requires these genes, whose knockdown severely impairs tumor growth and prohibits progression from benign papillomas to SCCs. ETS2-deficiency disrupts the SCC-SC super-enhancer landscape and downstream cancer genes while ETS2-overactivation in epidermal-SCs induces hyperproliferation and SCC super-enhancer-associated genes Fos, Junb and Klf5. Together, our findings unearth an essential regulatory network required for the SCC-SC chromatin landscape and unveil its importance in malignant progression.
Keywords: ETS family transcription factors; Super-enhancer profiling; developmental biology; mouse; skin squamous cell carcinomas; stem cells.