An expanding universe of the non-coding genome in cancer biology

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Abstract

Neoplastic transformation is caused by accumulation of genetic and epigenetic alterations that ultimately convert normal cells into tumor cells with uncontrolled proliferation and survival, unlimited replicative potential and invasive growth [Hanahan,D.et al. (2011) Hallmarks of cancer: the next generation.Cell, 144, 646–674]. Although the majority of the cancer studies have focused on the functions of protein-coding genes, emerging evidence has started to reveal the importance of the vast non-coding genome, which constitutes more than 98% of the human genome. A number of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) derived from the ‘dark matter‘ of the human genome exhibit cancer-specific differential expression and/or genomic alterations, and it is increasingly clear that ncRNAs, including small ncRNAs and long ncRNAs (lncRNAs), play an important role in cancer development by regulating protein-coding gene expression through diverse mechanisms. In addition to ncRNAs, nearly half of the mammalian genomes consist of transposable elements, particularly retrotransposons. Once depicted as selfish genomic parasites that propagate at the expense of host fitness, retrotransposon elements could also confer regulatory complexity to the host genomes during development and disease. Reactivation of retrotransposons in cancer, while capable of causing insertional mutagenesis and genome rearrangements to promote oncogenesis, could also alter host gene expression networks to favor tumor development. Taken together, the functional significance of non-coding genome in tumorigenesis has been previously underestimated, and diverse transcripts derived from the non-coding genome could act as integral functional components of the oncogene and tumor suppressor network.

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