Liu Y. et al.
Amplification and overexpression of the SOX2 oncogene represent a hallmark of squamous cancers originating from diverse tissue types. Here, we find that squamous cancers selectively amplify a 3’ noncoding region together with SOX2, which harbors squamous cancer-specific chromatin accessible regions. We identify a single enhancer e1 that predominantly drives SOX2 expression. Repression of e1 in SOX2-high cells causes collapse of the surrounding enhancers, remarkable reduction in SOX2 expression, and a global transcriptional change reminiscent of SOX2 knockout. The e1 enhancer is driven by a combination of transcription factors including SOX2 itself and the AP-1 complex, which facilitates recruitment of the co-activator BRD4. CRISPR-mediated activation of e1 in SOX2-low cells is sufficient to rebuild the e1-SOX2 loop and activate SOX2 expression. Our study shows that squamous cancers selectively amplify a predominant enhancer to drive SOX2 overexpression, uncovering functional links among enhancer activation, chromatin looping, and lineage-specific copy number amplifications of oncogenes.