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Open Access Publications from the University of California
Cover page of CRISPR-Cas9 bends and twists DNA to read its sequence.

CRISPR-Cas9 bends and twists DNA to read its sequence.


In bacterial defense and genome editing applications, the CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 searches millions of DNA base pairs to locate a 20-nucleotide, guide RNA-complementary target sequence that abuts a protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM). Target capture requires Cas9 to unwind DNA at candidate sequences using an unknown ATP-independent mechanism. Here we show that Cas9 sharply bends and undertwists DNA on PAM binding, thereby flipping DNA nucleotides out of the duplex and toward the guide RNA for sequence interrogation. Cryogenic-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of Cas9-RNA-DNA complexes trapped at different states of the interrogation pathway, together with solution conformational probing, reveal that global protein rearrangement accompanies formation of an unstacked DNA hinge. Bend-induced base flipping explains how Cas9 'reads' snippets of DNA to locate target sites within a vast excess of nontarget DNA, a process crucial to both bacterial antiviral immunity and genome editing. This mechanism establishes a physical solution to the problem of complementarity-guided DNA search and shows how interrogation speed and local DNA geometry may influence genome editing efficiency.

Cover page of Neutralizing immunity in vaccine breakthrough infections from the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron and Delta variants.

Neutralizing immunity in vaccine breakthrough infections from the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron and Delta variants.


Virus-like particle (VLP) and live virus assays were used to investigate neutralizing immunity against Delta and Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variants in 259 samples from 128 vaccinated individuals. Following Delta breakthrough infection, titers against WT rose 57-fold and 3.1-fold compared with uninfected boosted and unboosted individuals, respectively, versus only a 5.8-fold increase and 3.1-fold decrease for Omicron breakthrough infection. Among immunocompetent, unboosted patients, Delta breakthrough infections induced 10.8-fold higher titers against WT compared with Omicron (p = 0.037). Decreased antibody responses in Omicron breakthrough infections relative to Delta were potentially related to a higher proportion of asymptomatic or mild breakthrough infections (55.0% versus 28.6%, respectively), which exhibited 12.3-fold lower titers against WT compared with moderate to severe infections (p = 0.020). Following either Delta or Omicron breakthrough infection, limited variant-specific cross-neutralizing immunity was observed. These results suggest that Omicron breakthrough infections are less immunogenic than Delta, thus providing reduced protection against reinfection or infection from future variants.

Cover page of Species- and site-specific genome editing in complex bacterial communities.

Species- and site-specific genome editing in complex bacterial communities.


Understanding microbial gene functions relies on the application of experimental genetics in cultured microorganisms. However, the vast majority of bacteria and archaea remain uncultured, precluding the application of traditional genetic methods to these organisms and their interactions. Here, we characterize and validate a generalizable strategy for editing the genomes of specific organisms in microbial communities. We apply environmental transformation sequencing (ET-seq), in which nontargeted transposon insertions are mapped and quantified following delivery to a microbial community, to identify genetically tractable constituents. Next, DNA-editing all-in-one RNA-guided CRISPR-Cas transposase (DART) systems for targeted DNA insertion into organisms identified as tractable by ET-seq are used to enable organism- and locus-specific genetic manipulation in a community context. Using a combination of ET-seq and DART in soil and infant gut microbiota, we conduct species- and site-specific edits in several bacteria, measure gene fitness in a nonmodel bacterium and enrich targeted species. These tools enable editing of microbial communities for understanding and control.

  • 1 supplemental ZIP

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.