Three newly discovered enzymes—provisionally named C2c1, C2c2, and C2c3—promise to expand the CRISPR genome-editing toolbox beyond the well-known Cas9. They had been hiding inside NIH genomic databases, but they were eventually found out, thanks to the application of computational approaches developed by two groups of researchers. These researchers also initiated experimental work to explore the function of the bioinformatically identified enzymes.

One of the groups was led by Eugene Koonin, Ph.D., senior investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the NIH. The other group was led by Feng Zhang, Ph.D., of the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute.

According to the researchers, the three newly discovered enzymes are all naturally occurring, and all share some features with Cas9. In addition, these three enzymes have unique properties that could be exploited for novel genome-editing applications.

“This work shows a path to discovery of novel CRISPR-Cas systems with diverse properties, which are demonstrated here in direct experiments,” said Dr. Koonin. “The most remarkable aspect of the story is how evolution has achieved a broad repertoire of biological activities, a feat we can take advantage of for new genome-manipulation tools.”

This comment highlights how the researchers’ work, which appeared October 22 in the journal Molecular Cell, included information about potential evolutionary pathways. The researchers also emphasized that their work might lead to additional enzyme discoveries.

“There are multiple ways to modify the search algorithm, so more exciting and distinct CRISPR-Cas mechanisms should be expected soon,” said Konstantin Severinov, Ph.D., one of the researchers. He is affiliated with Rutgers and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. “These new mechanisms will undoubtedly attract the attention of basic and applied scientists alike.”

The Koonin and Zhang groups also recently collaborated on a project that resulted in the characterization of Cpf1, a class II CRISPR endonuclease, like Cas9. This work was described last month in an article, published in Cell, suggesting that the newly found enzyme’s distinct features pointed to unique genome-editing possibilities.

In his comments about this earlier work, Dr. Zhang made a point that presaged the current work: “Our goal is to develop tools that can accelerate research and eventually lead to new therapeutic applications. We see much more to come, even beyond Cpf1 and Cas9, with other enzymes that may be repurposed for further genome-editing advances.”

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