Endogenous retroviruses are a source of enhancers with oncogenic potential in acute myeloid leukaemia

Nat Commun. 2020 Jul 14;11(1):3506. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-17206-4.


Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is characterised by a series of genetic and epigenetic alterations that result in deregulation of transcriptional networks. One understudied source of transcriptional regulators are transposable elements (TEs), whose aberrant usage could contribute to oncogenic transcriptional circuits. However, the regulatory influence of TEs and their links to AML pathogenesis remain unexplored. Here we identify six endogenous retrovirus (ERV) families with AML-associated enhancer chromatin signatures that are enriched in binding of key regulators of hematopoiesis and AML pathogenesis. Using both locus-specific genetic editing and simultaneous epigenetic silencing of multiple ERVs, we demonstrate that ERV deregulation directly alters the expression of adjacent genes in AML. Strikingly, deletion or epigenetic silencing of an ERV-derived enhancer suppresses cell growth by inducing apoptosis in leukemia cell lines. This work reveals that ERVs are a previously unappreciated source of AML enhancers that may be exploited by cancer cells to help drive tumour heterogeneity and evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Chromatin / metabolism*
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Gene Regulatory Networks / genetics
  • Gene Regulatory Networks / physiology
  • Genome, Human / genetics
  • Humans
  • Interspersed Repetitive Sequences / genetics
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / genetics*


  • Chromatin
  • DNA Transposable Elements