genome engineering

Genome Modification—a Practical Approach

The ability to modify genomes has always been fervidly sought after by molecular, developmental biologists and geneticists as it would provide them with the means for finding out what a particular piece of the genome may do in the biological process they are studying. The discovery of naturally existing P-element helped a generation of Drosophila geneticists and made the fruit fly a prime model system for gene function studies in the 80’s and 90’s. But P-elements inserted at uncontrolled sites, making it essentially a gene transfer vehicle without much control. The introduction of prokaryotic recombination systems, e.g. LoxP and Cre, provided researchers with tools to obtain more control of the inserted genes in a host chromosome during a biological process such as development. Transposons like Sleeping Beauty, Piggybac, or Tol2 made similar experiments possible in mammalian cells.

Still, the randomness of transposon-type elements’ insertion, much like retrovirus or lentivirus, could cause trouble if they land in an undesirable spot. Methods of inserting transgenes only in well-known, harmless, and transcriptionally active regions, so called “safe harbors”, were subjects of interest of researchers and NIH grant topics in the past couple of years under “directed genome editing”. Gene knock-out or knock-in can be achieved through vector-mediated homologous recombination such as the rAAV genome engineering system and the “TARGATT” system, which are commercially available as kits or services.

However, instead of inserting an exogenous gene, it is often highly desirable to modify an endogenous genome sequence, which requires the modification apparatus to first recognize the target sequence. ZFN and TALEN both recognize DNA targets through specific nucleotide binding protein domains, with TALEN having more flexibility if assembled in a “Lego”-like format because each domain can specifically recognize a “C”, “G”, “T”, or “A” base. The description of using CRISPR/cas system in a recent burst of publications opened up new ways of binding to specific DNA sequences and nicking or severing the dsDNA. This system does not require engineeredDNA binding domain assembly; instead, it uses a guide RNA to find the target DNA sequence to direct endonuclease, in a sense quite like RNAi. However, the enthusiasm about CRISPR/cas was somewhat dampened by a report last month in Nature Biotechnology that reported off-target effects of CRISPR/cas was much higher than ZFN and TALEN. Particularly, if mismatches are located in the 5’ portion of the guide RNA targeting sequence, they can be well tolerated up to 3 or 4, even 5 mismatches. Unfortunately this is also similar to the tolerance of the RNAi matching region outside the core 12-base region. The difference is: for RNAi, the off-target damage is temporary and ignorable if the extent is insignificant compared to the effects on the intended target while for CRISPR/cas, an off-target cut on the chromosome is permanent.

On the positive side, in an even more recent publication in Nature Methods, mutant strains of C. elegans were obtained using the CRISPR/cas system and no evidence was found for off-target changes, at least not in an overwhelming fashion. Much value of the estimates of off-target effects relates to the methods used for analysis. Currently, most of the studies looked at potential off-target sides by searching for partial matches. In the future, whole genome sequencing will be increasingly required for submitting such publications.

On a practical note, if you intend to take a dive and try to use any one of these methods, your number one problem will be that none of the methods will result in 100% modification even if you can ignore the off-target problems for now. Therefore, many of our customers ask about a screening strategy. One could use traditional drug selection and fluorescent protein (FP)-based sorting, but these can only help you find cells that are successfully transfected with the ZFN, TALEN, or CRISPR/cas expressing DNA molecules, not necessarily having the genome modification result. We have formulated the idea of inserting the target site into an FP-bearing plasmid as a surrogate target cutting indicator, and use another FP to track transfection of the TALEN plasmid. Nonetheless, in the end, PCR-amplifying the target region of the chromosome and doing either an enzymatic mismatch detection assay (e.g. T7 endonuclease) or sequencing is the only way to know for sure whether genome editing has occurred.

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Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 Synthetic biology, Viruses and cells 1 Comment

The Power of Cas

Precise engineering of the genomes of higher eukaryotes can enable a variety of biological and medical applications. Targeted gene disruption, editing, and insertion can translate into the much desired freedom to generate cells or organisms bearing a desired genetic change. Recent developments in the stem cell field have created even more excitement for genetically modifying genomes because it enables delivering more beneficial stem cell-derived therapeutic cells to patients. For instance, by correcting a gene mutation known to be critical to Parkinson’s disease, LRRK2 G2019S, in patient-specific iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells), researchers were able to rescue neurodegenerative phenotypes [1].

Cumbersome reagent development and high costs have been major barriers to targeted genome modification using the current technologies, which include the zinc finger nuclease (ZFN) and transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN). Unlike the ZFN and TALEN systems, CRISPR/cas does not require assembly of DNA pieces that encode the functional proteins every time a new sequence is to be targeted. Instead, it uses a guide RNA to direct the traffic of a nuclease complex. Five recent publications of modifying eukaryotic chromosomes showed the importance of the CRISPR/cas system [2-6], they also hinted at the ease of adapting this system in eukaryotes given that the functions of cas and the small guide RNA were described in bacteria merely few months ago [7].

The concern that the bacterial CRISPR/cas system would not access the chromatin structures of eukaryotic genome was muted as a result of recent publications; it also seems that the cas9 protein is as powerful an enzyme as one could have hoped in an endonuclease. As a matter of fact, cas9 from S. pyogenes contains 2 different single-stranded DNAse domains independent of each other, and can be mutated to change from a double-stranded DNA endonuclease to a single-strand cutter, or a non-cutting block. That’s not all, a more recent Nature publication further showed that cas9 (from another species, F. novicida), can bind to yet another small RNA and, instead of cutting chromosomal DNA, it degrades RNA, apparently through a direct cas9/RNA binding mechanism [8]. It may be chromosomal modification and RNAi rolled in one (cas9 from different genera are quite different though). One has to admire the powerful cas!

1. Reinhardt, P., et al., Genetic Correction of a LRRK2 Mutation in Human iPSCs Links Parkinsonian Neurodegeneration to ERK-Dependent Changes in Gene Expression. Cell Stem Cell, 2013. 12(3): p. 354-67.
2. Qi, L.S., et al., Repurposing CRISPR as an RNA-Guided Platform for Sequence-Specific Control of Gene Expression. Cell, 2013. 152(5): p. 1173-83.
3. Mali, P., et al., RNA-guided human genome engineering via Cas9. Science, 2013. 339(6121): p. 823-6.
4. Cong, L., et al., Multiplex genome engineering using CRISPR/Cas systems. Science, 2013. 339(6121): p. 819-23.
5. Cho, S.W., S. Kim, J.M. Kim, and J.S. Kim, Targeted genome engineering in human cells with the Cas9 RNA-guided endonuclease. Nat Biotechnol, 2013. 31(3): p. 230-2.
6. Hwang, W.Y., et al., Efficient genome editing in zebrafish using a CRISPR-Cas system. Nat Biotechnol, 2013. 31(3): p. 227-9.
7. Jinek, M., et al., A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity. Science, 2012.
8. Sampson, T.R., et al., A CRISPR/Cas system mediates bacterial innate immune evasion and virulence. Nature, 2013.

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