Spontaneous retrotranspositions in normal tissues are rare and associated with cell-type-specific differentiation
Activation of retrotransposons and their insertions into new genomic locations, i.e., retrotranspositions (RTs), have been identified in about 50% of tumors. However, the landscape of RTs in different, normal somatic cell types in humans remains largely unknown. Using single-cell whole-genome sequencing we identified 528 RT events, including LINE-1 (L1), and Alu, in 164 single cells and clones of fibroblasts, neurons, B lymphocytes, hepatocytes and liver stem cells, of 29 healthy human subjects aged from 0 to 106 years. The frequency of RTs was found to vary from <1 on average per cell in primary fibroblasts to 7.8 per cell in hepatocytes. Somewhat surprisingly, RT frequency does not increase with age, which is in contrast to other types of spontaneous mutation. RTs were found significantly more likely to insert in or close to target genes of the Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2), which represses most of the genes encoding developmental regulators through H3K27me3 histone modification in embryonic stem cells. Indeed, when directly comparing RT frequency between differentiated liver hepatocytes with liver stem cells, the latter were almost devoid of RTs. These results indicate that spontaneous RTs are associated with cellular differentiation and occur, possibly, as a consequence of the transient chromatin transition of differentiation-specific genes from a transcriptionally repressed to activated state during the differentiation process.
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