Striking heterogeneity of somatic L1 retrotransposition in single normal and cancerous gastrointestinal cells

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Dec 22;117(51):32215-32222. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2019450117. Epub 2020 Dec 4.


Somatic LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposition has been detected in early embryos, adult brains, and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and many cancers, including epithelial GI tumors. We previously found numerous somatic L1 insertions in paired normal and GI cancerous tissues. Here, using a modified method of single-cell analysis for somatic L1 insertions, we studied adenocarcinomas of colon, pancreas, and stomach, and found a variable number of somatic L1 insertions in tumors of the same type from patient to patient. We detected no somatic L1 insertions in single cells of 5 of 10 tumors studied. In three tumors, aneuploid cells were detected by FACS. In one pancreatic tumor, there were many more L1 insertions in aneuploid than in euploid tumor cells. In one gastric cancer, both aneuploid and euploid cells contained large numbers of likely clonal insertions. However, in a second gastric cancer with aneuploid cells, no somatic L1 insertions were found. We suggest that when the cellular environment is favorable to retrotransposition, aneuploidy predisposes tumor cells to L1 insertions, and retrotransposition may occur at the transition from euploidy to aneuploidy. Seventeen percent of insertions were also present in normal cells, similar to findings in genomic DNA from normal tissues of GI tumor patients. We provide evidence that: 1) The number of L1 insertions in tumors of the same type is highly variable, 2) most somatic L1 insertions in GI cancer tissues are absent from normal tissues, and 3) under certain conditions, somatic L1 retrotransposition exhibits a propensity for occurring in aneuploid cells.

Keywords: gastrointestinal cancer; single cells; somatic retrotransposition.