Guo Hongshan et al.
Deregulation of oncogenic signals in cancer triggers replication stress. Immediate early genes (IEGs) are rapidly and transiently expressed following stressful signals, contributing to an integrated response. Here, we find that the orphan nuclear receptor NR4A1 localizes across the gene body and 3' UTR of IEGs, where it inhibits transcriptional elongation by RNA Pol II, generating R-loops and accessible chromatin domains. Acute replication stress causes immediate dissociation of NR4A1 and a burst of transcriptionally poised IEG expression. Ectopic expression of NR4A1 enhances tumorigenesis by breast cancer cells, while its deletion leads to massive chromosomal instability and proliferative failure, driven by deregulated expression of its IEG target, FOS. Approximately half of breast and other primary cancers exhibit accessible chromatin domains at IEG gene bodies, consistent with this stress-regulatory pathway. Cancers that have retained this mechanism in adapting to oncogenic replication stress may be dependent on NR4A1 for their proliferation.