Genome Editing

Genome editing is enabled by the development of tools to make precise, targeted changes to the genome of living cells. Recently a new tool based on a bacterial CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (Cas9) from Streptococcus pyogenes has generated considerable excitement. This follows several attempts over the years to manipulate gene function, including homologous recombination and RNA interference. RNAi, in particular, became a laboratory staple enabling inexpensive and high-throughput interrogation of gene function, but is hampered by providing only temporary inhibition of gene function and unpredictable off-target effects. Other recent approaches to targeted genome modification – zinc-finger nucleases [ZFNs] and transcription-activator like effector nucleases [TALENs] – enable researchers to generate mutations by introducing double-stranded breaks to activate repair pathways. These approaches are costly and time consuming to engineer, limiting their widespread use, particularly for large scale, high-throughput studies.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) genes are essential in adaptive immunity in select bacteria and archaea, enabling the organisms to respond to and eliminate invading genetic material.



Cas9 in vivo: Bacterial adaptive immunity

CRISPR loci in the bacterial genome are transcribed and processed into crRNA. Cas9 endonuclease complexed with a crRNA and separate tracrRNA cleaves foreign DNA containing a 20-nucleotide crRNA complementary sequence adjacent to the PAM sequence. (Figure not drawn to scale.)
The simplicity of the CRISPR nuclease system, with only three components (Cas9 , crRNA and trRNA) makes this system amenable to adaptation for genome editing. By combining the crRNA and trRNA into a single synthetic guide RNA (sgRNA), a further simplified two component system can be used to introduce a targeted double stranded break. This break activates repair through error prone non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) or Homology directed Repair (HDR). In the presence of a donor template with homology to the targeted locus, the HDR pathway operates allowing for precise mutations to be made. In the absence of a template, NHEJ is activated resulting in insertions and/or deletions (indels) which disrupt the target locus.

Genome engineering with Cas9 Nuclease