In the past year a group of synthetic proteins called CRISPR-Cas RNA-guided nucleases (RGNs) have generated great excitement in the scientific community as gene-editing tools.
Exploiting a method that some bacteria use to combat viruses and other pathogens, CRISPR-Cas RGNs can cut through DNA strands at specific sites, allowing the insertion of new genetic material. However, a team of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers has found a significant limitation to the use of CRISPR-Cas RGNs, production of unwanted DNA mutations at sites other than the desired target.
"We found that expression of CRISPR-Cas RGNs in human cells can have off-target effects that, surprisingly, can occur at sites with significant sequence differences from the targeted DNA site," says J. Keith Joung, MD, PhD, associate chief for Research in the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Pathology and co-senior author of the report receiving online publication in Nature Biotechnology. "RGNs continue to have tremendous advantages over other genome editing technologies, but these findings have now focused our work on improving their precision."
Consisting of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas 9, coupled with a short, 20-nucleotide segment of RNA that matches the target DNA segment, CRISPR-Cas RGNs mimic the primitive immune systems of certain bacteria. When these microbes are infected by viruses or other organisms, they copy a segment of the invader's genetic code and incorporate it into their DNA, passing it on to future bacterial generations. If the same pathogen is encountered in the future, the bacterial enzyme called Cas9, guided by an RNA sequence the matches the copied DNA segment, inactivates the pathogen by cutting its DNA at the target site.
About a year ago, scientists reported the first use of programmed CRISPR-Cas RGNs to target and cut specific DNA sites. Since then several research teams, including Joung's, have succesfully used CRISPR-Cas RGNs to make genomic changes in fruit flies, zebrafish, mice and in human cells – including induced pluripotent stem cells which have many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. The technology's reliance on such a short RNA segment makes CRISPR-Cas RGNs much easier to use than other gene-editing tools called zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) and transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), and RGNs can be programmed to introduce several genetic changes at the same time.
However, the possibility that CRISPR-Cas RGNs might cause additional, unwanted genetic changes has been largely unexplored, so Joung's team set out to investigate the occurrence of "off-target" mutations in human cells expressing CRISPR-Cas RGNs. Since the interaction between the guiding RNA segment and the target DNA relies on only 20 nucleotides, they hypothesized that the RNA might also recognize DNA segments that differed from the target by a few nucleotides.
Although previous studies had found that a single-nucleotide mismatch could prevent the action of some CRISPR-Cas RGNs, the MGH team's experiments in human cell lines found multiple instances in which mismatches of as many as five nucleotides did not prevent cleavage of an off-target DNA segment. They also found that the rates of mutation at off-target sites could be as high or even higher than at the targeted site, something that has not been observed with off-target mutations associated with ZFNs or TALENs.
"Our results don't mean that RGNs cannot be important research tools, but they do mean that researchers need to account for these potentially confounding effects in their experiments. They also suggest that the existing RGN platform may not be ready for therapeutic applications," says Joung, who is an associate professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. "We are now working on ways to reduce these off-target effects, along with methods to identify all potential off-target sites of any given RGN in human cells so that we can assess whether any second-generation RGN platforms that are developed will be actually more precise on a genome-wide scale. I am optimistic that we can further engineer this system to achieve greater specificity so that it might be used for therapy of human diseases."
Jeffry D. Sander, PhD, of the MGH Molecular Pathology Unit is co-senior author of the Nature Biotechnology report. Additional co-authors are lead author Yanfang Fu, PhD; Jennifer Foden, Cyd Khayter, Morgan Maeder and Deepak Reyon, PhD, all of MGH Molecular Pathology. Support for the study includes National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director's Pioneer Award DP1 GM105378; NIH grants R01 GM088040 and P50 HG005550, DARPA grant W911NF-11-2-0056, and the Jim and Ann Orr MGH Research Scholar Award.
Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of more than $775 million and major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative medicine, reproductive biology, systems biology, transplantation biology and photomedicine. In July 2012, MGH moved into the number one spot on the 2012-13 U.S. News & World Report list of "America's Best Hospitals."
Sue McGreevey | EurekAlert!
Further reports about: > Biotechnology > CRISPR-Cas system > DNA > DNA mutation > DNA strand > Medical Wellness > Merit Award > Molecular Target > Nature Biotechnology > Nature Immunology > Pathology > RNA > RNA segment > Universität Harvard > embryonic stem cell > genetic changes > genomic change > human cell > immune system > neurodegenerative disorder > stem cells
Researchers uncover protein-based “cancer signature”
05.12.2016 | Universität Basel
The Nagoya Protocol Creates Disadvantages for Many Countries when Applied to Microorganisms
05.12.2016 | Leibniz-Institut DSMZ-Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen GmbH
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
05.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering