With the latest CRISPR/Cas9 advance, the exhortation “turn on, tune in, drop out” comes to mind. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system was already a well-known means of “tuning in” (inserting new genes) and “dropping out” (knocking out genes). But when it came to “turning on” genes, CRISPR/Cas9 had little potency. That is, it had demonstrated only limited success as a way to activate specific genes.
A new CRISPR/Cas9 approach, however, appears capable of activating genes more effectively than older approaches. The new approach may allow scientists to more easily determine the function of individual genes, according to Feng Zhang, Ph.D., a researcher at MIT and the Broad Institute. Dr. Zhang and colleagues report that the new approach permits multiplexed gene activation and rapid, large-scale studies of gene function.
The new technique was introduced in the December 10 online edition of Nature, in an article entitled, “Genome-scale transcriptional activation by an engineered CRISPR-Cas9 complex.” The article describes how Dr. Zhang, along with the University of Tokyo’s Osamu Nureki, Ph.D., and Hiroshi Nishimasu, Ph.D., overhauled the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The research team based their work on their analysis (published earlier this year) of the structure formed when Cas9 binds to the guide RNA and its target DNA. Specifically, the team used the structure’s 3D shape to rationally improve the system.
In previous efforts to revamp CRISPR/Cas9 for gene activation purposes, scientists had tried to attach the activation domains to either end of the Cas9 protein, with limited success. From their structural studies, the MIT team realized that two small loops of the RNA guide poke out from the Cas9 complex and could be better points of attachment because they allow the activation domains to have more flexibility in recruiting transcription machinery.
Using their revamped system, the researchers activated about a dozen genes that had proven difficult or impossible to turn on using the previous generation of Cas9 activators. Each gene showed at least a twofold boost in transcription, and for many genes, the researchers found multiple orders of magnitude increase in activation.
After investigating single-guide RNA targeting rules for effective transcriptional activation, demonstrating multiplexed activation of 10 genes simultaneously, and upregulating long intergenic noncoding RNA transcripts, the research team decided to undertake a large-scale screen. This screen was designed to identify genes that confer resistance to a melanoma drug called PLX-4720.
“We … synthesized a library consisting of 70,290 guides targeting all human RefSeq coding isoforms to screen for genes that, upon activation, confer resistance to a BRAF inhibitor,” wrote the authors of the Nature paper. “The top hits included genes previously shown to be able to confer resistance, and novel candidates were validated using individual [single-guide RNA] and complementary DNA overexpression.”
A gene signature based on the top screening hits, the authors added, correlated with a gene expression signature of BRAF inhibitor resistance in cell lines and patient-derived samples. It was also suggested that large-scale screens such as the one demonstrated in the current study could help researchers discover new cancer drugs that prevent tumors from becoming resistant.
“You could start with a drug that targets the mutated BRAF along with combination therapy that targets genes that allow the cell to survive,” explained Silvana Konermann, a graduate student in Dr. Zhang’s lab. “If you target both of them at the same time, you could likely prevent the cells from developing resistance mechanisms that enable further growth despite drug treatment.”
Dr. Zhang’s lab also plans to use this technique to screen for genes that, when activated, could correct the effects of autism or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. He also plans to make the necessary reagents available to academic labs that want to use them, through the Addgene repository.