Research Article

Targeted nucleotide editing using hybrid prokaryotic and vertebrate adaptive immune systems

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Science  16 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6305, aaf8729
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf8729

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Structured Abstract


To combat invading pathogens, cells develop an adaptive immune response by changing their own genetic information. In vertebrates, the generation of genetic variation (somatic hypermutation) is an essential process for diversification and affinity maturation of antibodies that function to detect and sequester various foreign biomolecules. The activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID) carries out hypermutation by modifying deoxycytidine bases in the variable region of the immunoglobulin locus that produces antibody. AID-generated deoxyuridine in DNA is mutagenic as it can be miss-recognized as deoxythymine, resulting in C to T mutations. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas (CRISPR-associated) is a prokaryotic adaptive immune system that records and degrades invasive foreign DNA or RNA. The CRISPR/Cas system cleaves and incorporates foreign DNA/RNA segments into the genomic region called the CRISPR array. The CRISPR array is transcribed to produce crispr-RNA that serves as guide RNA (gRNA) for recognition of the complementary foreign DNA/RNA in a ribonucleoprotein complex with Cas proteins, which degrade the target. The CRISPR/Cas system has been repurposed as a powerful genome editing tool, because it can be programmed to cleave specific DNA sequence by providing custom gRNAs.


Although the precise mechanism by which AID specifically mutates the immunoglobulin locus remains elusive, targeting of AID activity is facilitated by the formation of a single-stranded DNA region, such as a transcriptional RNA/DNA hybrid (R-loop). The CRISPR/Cas system can be engineered to be nuclease-inactive. The nuclease-inactive form is capable of unfolding the DNA double strand in a protospacer adjacent motif (PAM) sequence-dependent manner so that the gRNA binds to complementary target DNA strand and forms an R-loop. The nuclease-deficient CRISPR/Cas system may serve as a suitable DNA-targeting module for AID to catalyze site-specific mutagenesis.


To determine whether AID activity can be specifically targeted by the CRISPR/Cas system, we combined dCas9 (a nuclease-deficient mutant of Cas9) from Streptococcus pyogenes and an AID ortholog, PmCDA1 from sea lamprey, to form a synthetic complex (Target-AID) by either engineering a fusion between the two proteins or attaching a SH3 (Src 3 homology) domain to the C terminus of dCas9 and a SHL (SH3 interaction ligand) to the C terminus of PmCDA1. Both of these complexes performed highly efficient site-directed mutagenesis. The mutational spectrum was analyzed in yeast and demonstrated that point mutations were dominantly induced at cytosines within the range of three to five bases surrounding the –18 position upstream of the PAM sequence on the noncomplementary strand to gRNA. The toxicity associated with the nuclease-based CRISPR/Cas9 system was greatly reduced in the Target-AID complexes. Combination of PmCDA1 with the nickase Cas9(D10A) mutant, which retains cleavage activity for noncomplementary single-stranded DNA, was more efficient in yeast but also induced deletions as well as point mutations in mammalian cells. Addition of the uracil DNA glycosylase inhibitor protein, which blocks the initial step of the uracil base excision repair pathway, suppressed collateral deletions and further improved targeting efficiency. Potential off-target effects were assessed by whole-genome sequencing of yeast as well as deep sequencing of mammalian cells for regions that contain mismatched target sequences. These results showed that off-target effects were comparable to those of conventional CRISPR/Cas systems, with a reduced risk of indel formation.


By expanding the genome editing potential of the CRISPR/Cas9 system by deaminase-mediated hypermutation, Target-AID demonstrated a very narrow range of targeted nucleotide substitution without the use of template DNA. Nickase Cas9 and uracil DNA glycosylase inhibitor protein can be used to boost the targeting efficiency. The reduced cytotoxicity will be beneficial for use in cells that are sensitive to artificial nucleases. Use of other types of nucleotide-modifying enzymes and/or other CRISPR-related systems with different PAM requirements will expand our genome-editing repertoire and capacity.

A crippled CRISPR/Cas targets AID.

In vertebrate adaptive immunity, cytosine deaminase (AID or PmCDA1) induces somatic hypermutation at single-stranded DNA regions formed during transcription. The bacterial CRISPR/Cas9 immunity system recognizes and cleaves invasive DNA in a gRNA-dependent manner. AID and nuclease-deficient CRISPR/Cas9 are engineered to form a hybrid complex (Target-AID) that performs programmable cytosine mutations in a range of a few bases surrounding the –18 position upstream of PAM sequence of the noncomplementary DNA strand.


The generation of genetic variation (somatic hypermutation) is an essential process for the adaptive immune system in vertebrates. We demonstrate the targeted single-nucleotide substitution of DNA using hybrid vertebrate and bacterial immune systems components. Nuclease-deficient type II CRISPR/Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR-associated) and the activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID) ortholog PmCDA1 were engineered to form a synthetic complex (Target-AID) that performs highly efficient target-specific mutagenesis. Specific point mutation was induced primarily at cytidines within the target range of five bases. The toxicity associated with the nuclease-based CRISPR/Cas9 system was greatly reduced. Although combination of nickase Cas9(D10A) and the deaminase was highly effective in yeasts, it also induced insertion and deletion (indel) in mammalian cells. Use of uracil DNA glycosylase inhibitor suppressed the indel formation and improved the efficiency.

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