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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Accelerated RNA detection using tandem CRISPR nucleases.


Direct, amplification-free detection of RNA has the potential to transform molecular diagnostics by enabling simple on-site analysis of human or environmental samples. CRISPR-Cas nucleases offer programmable RNA-guided RNA recognition that triggers cleavage and release of a fluorescent reporter molecule, but long reaction times hamper their detection sensitivity and speed. Here, we show that unrelated CRISPR nucleases can be deployed in tandem to provide both direct RNA sensing and rapid signal generation, thus enabling robust detection of ~30 molecules per µl of RNA in 20 min. Combining RNA-guided Cas13 and Csm6 with a chemically stabilized activator creates a one-step assay that can detect severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA extracted from respiratory swab samples with quantitative reverse transcriptase PCR (qRT-PCR)-derived cycle threshold (Ct) values up to 33, using a compact detector. This Fast Integrated Nuclease Detection In Tandem (FIND-IT) approach enables sensitive, direct RNA detection in a format that is amenable to point-of-care infection diagnosis as well as to a wide range of other diagnostic or research applications.

Cover page of Targeted delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 and transgenes enables complex immune cell engineering.

Targeted delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 and transgenes enables complex immune cell engineering.


As genome engineering advances cell-based therapies, a versatile approach to introducing both CRISPR-Cas9 ribonucleoproteins (RNPs) and therapeutic transgenes into specific cells would be transformative. Autologous T cells expressing a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) manufactured by viral transduction are approved to treat multiple blood cancers, but additional genetic modifications to alter cell programs will likely be required to treat solid tumors and for allogeneic cellular therapies. We have developed a one-step strategy using engineered lentiviral particles to introduce Cas9 RNPs and a CAR transgene into primary human T cells without electroporation. Furthermore, programming particle tropism allows us to target a specific cell type within a mixed cell population. As a proof-of-concept, we show that HIV-1 envelope targeted particles to edit CD4+ cells while sparing co-cultured CD8+ cells. This adaptable approach to immune cell engineering ex vivo provides a strategy applicable to the genetic modification of targeted somatic cells in vivo.

Cover page of Structural coordination between active sites of a CRISPR reverse transcriptase-integrase complex.

Structural coordination between active sites of a CRISPR reverse transcriptase-integrase complex.


CRISPR-Cas systems provide adaptive immunity in bacteria and archaea, beginning with integration of foreign sequences into the host CRISPR genomic locus and followed by transcription and maturation of CRISPR RNAs (crRNAs). In some CRISPR systems, a reverse transcriptase (RT) fusion to the Cas1 integrase and Cas6 maturase creates a single protein that enables concerted sequence integration and crRNA production. To elucidate how the RT-integrase organizes distinct enzymatic activities, we present the cryo-EM structure of a Cas6-RT-Cas1-Cas2 CRISPR integrase complex. The structure reveals a heterohexamer in which the RT directly contacts the integrase and maturase domains, suggesting functional coordination between all three active sites. Together with biochemical experiments, our data support a model of sequential enzymatic activities that enable CRISPR sequence acquisition from RNA and DNA substrates. These findings highlight an expanded capacity of some CRISPR systems to acquire diverse sequences that direct CRISPR-mediated interference.

Cover page of Cancer-specific loss of <i>TERT</i> activation sensitizes glioblastoma to DNA damage.

Cancer-specific loss of TERT activation sensitizes glioblastoma to DNA damage.


Most glioblastomas (GBMs) achieve cellular immortality by acquiring a mutation in the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) promoter. TERT promoter mutations create a binding site for a GA binding protein (GABP) transcription factor complex, whose assembly at the promoter is associated with TERT reactivation and telomere maintenance. Here, we demonstrate increased binding of a specific GABPB1L-isoform-containing complex to the mutant TERT promoter. Furthermore, we find that TERT promoter mutant GBM cells, unlike wild-type cells, exhibit a critical near-term dependence on GABPB1L for proliferation, notably also posttumor establishment in vivo. Up-regulation of the protein paralogue GABPB2, which is normally expressed at very low levels, can rescue this dependence. More importantly, when combined with frontline temozolomide (TMZ) chemotherapy, inducible GABPB1L knockdown and the associated TERT reduction led to an impaired DNA damage response that resulted in profoundly reduced growth of intracranial GBM tumors. Together, these findings provide insights into the mechanism of cancer-specific TERT regulation, uncover rapid effects of GABPB1L-mediated TERT suppression in GBM maintenance, and establish GABPB1L inhibition in combination with chemotherapy as a therapeutic strategy for TERT promoter mutant GBM.

Cover page of Potent CRISPR-Cas9 inhibitors from <i>Staphylococcus</i> genomes.

Potent CRISPR-Cas9 inhibitors from Staphylococcus genomes.


Anti-CRISPRs (Acrs) are small proteins that inhibit the RNA-guided DNA targeting activity of CRISPR-Cas enzymes. Encoded by bacteriophage and phage-derived bacterial genes, Acrs prevent CRISPR-mediated inhibition of phage infection and can also block CRISPR-Cas-mediated genome editing in eukaryotic cells. To identify Acrs capable of inhibiting Staphylococcus aureus Cas9 (SauCas9), an alternative to the most commonly used genome editing protein Streptococcus pyogenes Cas9 (SpyCas9), we used both self-targeting CRISPR screening and guilt-by-association genomic search strategies. Here we describe three potent inhibitors of SauCas9 that we name AcrIIA13, AcrIIA14, and AcrIIA15. These inhibitors share a conserved N-terminal sequence that is dispensable for DNA cleavage inhibition and have divergent C termini that are required in each case for inhibition of SauCas9-catalyzed DNA cleavage. In human cells, we observe robust inhibition of SauCas9-induced genome editing by AcrIIA13 and moderate inhibition by AcrIIA14 and AcrIIA15. We also find that the conserved N-terminal domain of AcrIIA13-AcrIIA15 binds to an inverted repeat sequence in the promoter of these Acr genes, consistent with its predicted helix-turn-helix DNA binding structure. These data demonstrate an effective strategy for Acr discovery and establish AcrIIA13-AcrIIA15 as unique bifunctional inhibitors of SauCas9.

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Cover page of Cas9 interrogates DNA in discrete steps modulated by mismatches and supercoiling.

Cas9 interrogates DNA in discrete steps modulated by mismatches and supercoiling.


The CRISPR-Cas9 nuclease has been widely repurposed as a molecular and cell biology tool for its ability to programmably target and cleave DNA. Cas9 recognizes its target site by unwinding the DNA double helix and hybridizing a 20-nucleotide section of its associated guide RNA to one DNA strand, forming an R-loop structure. A dynamic and mechanical description of R-loop formation is needed to understand the biophysics of target searching and develop rational approaches for mitigating off-target activity while accounting for the influence of torsional strain in the genome. Here we investigate the dynamics of Cas9 R-loop formation and collapse using rotor bead tracking (RBT), a single-molecule technique that can simultaneously monitor DNA unwinding with base-pair resolution and binding of fluorescently labeled macromolecules in real time. By measuring changes in torque upon unwinding of the double helix, we find that R-loop formation and collapse proceed via a transient discrete intermediate, consistent with DNA:RNA hybridization within an initial seed region. Using systematic measurements of target and off-target sequences under controlled mechanical perturbations, we characterize position-dependent effects of sequence mismatches and show how DNA supercoiling modulates the energy landscape of R-loop formation and dictates access to states competent for stable binding and cleavage. Consistent with this energy landscape model, in bulk experiments we observe promiscuous cleavage under physiological negative supercoiling. The detailed description of DNA interrogation presented here suggests strategies for improving the specificity and kinetics of Cas9 as a genome engineering tool and may inspire expanded applications that exploit sensitivity to DNA supercoiling.

Cover page of Clades of huge phages from across Earth's ecosystems.

Clades of huge phages from across Earth's ecosystems.


Bacteriophages typically have small genomes1 and depend on their bacterial hosts for replication2. Here we sequenced DNA from diverse ecosystems and found hundreds of phage genomes with lengths of more than 200 kilobases (kb), including a genome of 735 kb, which is-to our knowledge-the largest phage genome to be described to date. Thirty-five genomes were manually curated to completion (circular and no gaps). Expanded genetic repertoires include diverse and previously undescribed CRISPR-Cas systems, transfer RNAs (tRNAs), tRNA synthetases, tRNA-modification enzymes, translation-initiation and elongation factors, and ribosomal proteins. The CRISPR-Cas systems of phages have the capacity to silence host transcription factors and translational genes, potentially as part of a larger interaction network that intercepts translation to redirect biosynthesis to phage-encoded functions. In addition, some phages may repurpose bacterial CRISPR-Cas systems to eliminate competing phages. We phylogenetically define the major clades of huge phages from human and other animal microbiomes, as well as from oceans, lakes, sediments, soils and the built environment. We conclude that the large gene inventories of huge phages reflect a conserved biological strategy, and that the phages are distributed across a broad bacterial host range and across Earth's ecosystems.




Abstract Understanding cancer cell immortality in primary glioblastoma (GBM) is essential for the development of more informed treatments. Multiple cancer types, including >80% of GBMs, undergo immortalization by reactivating Telomerase Reverse Transcriptase (TERT) through acquired mutations in the TERT promoter. TERT, the catalytically active and rate-limiting subunit of telomerase, functions to maintain telomeres, which cap and protect the ends of chromosomes. Our past work has demonstrated that the transcription factor GABP - and specifically its tetramer-forming isoform GABPb1L - binds and activates the mutant TERT promoter. The generation of CRISPR-induced indels in GABPb1L results in a gradual loss of cell viability in TERT promoter mutant but not TERT promoter wild type tumor cells in vitro, but the extent to which GABPb1L function is compromised in this setting is unclear. Thus, the potential for use of GABPb1L as an effective therapeutic target for TERT promoter mutant GBM requires further investigation. Here, we use CRISPR-based strategies to demonstrate that full knockout of GABPb1L is rapidly lethal in TERT promoter mutant cells in vitro, in association with a decrease in both TERT mRNA and telomerase activity. Heterozygous deletion of GABPb1L in the context of TERT promoter mutations leads to slowed growth of orthotopic xenograft tumors in mice, and prolonged survival. Additionally, inducible RNAi-mediated inhibition of GABPb1L in growing tumors is also capable of decreasing tumor burden and increasing survival, further strongly suggesting that targeting GABPb1L in patient tumors could be a viable treatment strategy. Finally, reduced GABPb1L synergizes with temozolomide (TMZ) therapy such that TMZ treatment in the context of low GABPb1L and low TERT leads to a complete ablation of orthotopic GBM xenografts. These results highlight the potential to improve disease outcomes by targeting TERT through inhibition of GABPb1L, particularly in conjunction with TMZ treatment.

Cover page of Structural basis for AcrVA4 inhibition of specific CRISPR-Cas12a.

Structural basis for AcrVA4 inhibition of specific CRISPR-Cas12a.


CRISPR-Cas systems provide bacteria and archaea with programmable immunity against mobile genetic elements. Evolutionary pressure by CRISPR-Cas has driven bacteriophage to evolve small protein inhibitors, anti-CRISPRs (Acrs), that block Cas enzyme function by wide-ranging mechanisms. We show here that the inhibitor AcrVA4 uses a previously undescribed strategy to recognize the L. bacterium Cas12a (LbCas12a) pre-crRNA processing nuclease, forming a Cas12a dimer, and allosterically inhibiting DNA binding. The Ac. species Cas12a (AsCas12a) enzyme, widely used for genome editing applications, contains an ancestral helical bundle that blocks AcrVA4 binding and allows it to escape anti-CRISPR recognition. Using biochemical, microbiological, and human cell editing experiments, we show that Cas12a orthologs can be rendered either sensitive or resistant to AcrVA4 through rational structural engineering informed by evolution. Together, these findings explain a new mode of CRISPR-Cas inhibition and illustrate how structural variability in Cas effectors can drive opportunistic co-evolution of inhibitors by bacteriophage.