An important goal of cancer genomics is to identify systematically cancer-causing mutations. A common approach is to identify sites with high ratios of non-synonymous to synonymous mutations; however, if synonymous mutations are under purifying selection, this methodology leads to identification of false-positive mutations. Here, using synonymous somatic mutations (SSMs) identified in over 4000 tumours across 15 different cancer types, we sought to test this assumption by focusing on coding regions required for splicing.
Exon flanks, which are enriched for sequences required for splicing fidelity, have ~ 17% lower SSM density compared to exonic cores, even after excluding canonical splice sites. While it is impossible to eliminate a mutation bias of unknown cause, multiple lines of evidence support a purifying selection model above a mutational bias explanation. The flank/core difference is not explained by skewed nucleotide content, replication timing, nucleosome occupancy or deficiency in mismatch repair. The depletion is not seen in tumour suppressors, consistent with their role in positive tumour selection, but is otherwise observed in cancer-associated and non-cancer genes, both essential and non-essential. Consistent with a role in splicing modulation, exonic splice enhancers have a lower SSM density before and after controlling for nucleotide composition; moreover, flanks at the 5' end of the exons have significantly lower SSM density than at the 3' end.
These results suggest that the observable mutational spectrum of cancer genomes is not simply a product of various mutational processes and positive selection, but might also be shaped by negative selection.