January 22, 2018
In the first Kingsman movie, Samuel L. Jackson plants little bombs into the necks of people who will follow him to his “ark”. If they disobey him, Jackson can simply blow up their heads.
In an amazing scene from the movie, our heroes get a hold of the “detonator” and blow up the heads of every one of Jackson’s followers. As you can see below, the director uses cool colors to make it more fabulous than gruesome:
In a new study out in Nature Communications, Maselko and coworkers explode misbehaving yeast instead of people’s heads. (Click here for an incredibly cool video of it happening…so cool!)
These researchers have created a strain of yeast that can only form diploids within the same strain. If instead it mates and forms a diploid with a yeast outside of its strain, the resulting diploids explode.
These authors aren’t being strainist—they are creating a proof of principle organism that could potentially solve the problem of gene transfer from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to wild organisms.
Assuming a similar idea works in plants, then the idea is that a GMO like an herbicide-resistant GM plant could not pass its herbicide-resistance to its wild cousin. The resulting plants would explode (or perhaps die in a bit less spectacular fashion). The herbicide-resistant gene would not escape into the wild population because none of the resulting plants could survive.
And that isn’t this approach’s only possible uses. It might be used to kill off disease carrying mosquitoes or controlling invasive species. Watch out sea lamprey!
The basic idea is that the engineered species makes a “poison” that it is immune to. If it mates with a wild species, it passes that poison on to the resulting “children.” These progeny are not immune and so die.
The poison in this case is a CRISPR/Cas9-inspired transcription activator. This activator turns a gene up so much that it kills the yeast. But the catch is that the activator’s binding site is only found in the wild type genome and not the engineered genome.
So the engineered strain carries around this deadly poison that does not affect it. But when this yeast mates with a strain that has the binding site, the resulting diploid yeast has the activator binding site, meaning that the silent killer can now bind and kill the diploid.
For their proof of principle experiments, Maselko and coworkers used a well-tested and available CRISPR/Cas9 transcriptional activator that involves dCas9-VP64 and a single guide RNA aptamer binding MS2-VP64. Previous work has shown that this is a very powerful activator.
Next they turned to the Saccharomyces Genome Database (SGD) to find genes that have been shown to be lethal when overexpressed. They created at least one guide RNA for each of the 8 genes and found that one of the guide RNAs that targeted the ACT1 promoter was lethal. The yeast made actin until it exploded (think the man in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life who eats so much he explodes).
Now they were ready to create their engineered strain. They used CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer a single nucleotide change such that their activator could no longer bind near the ACT1 gene. This strain survived when the activator was introduced.
But when they mated this strain with a wild type strain, they got almost no survivors. The resulting diploids grew fat on overproduced actin and exploded!
Note that there were a few survivors…as Jeff Goldblum famously said in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way.” The survivors appeared at a frequency of 4.83 × 10−3 with the most common reason found being a mutation in the activator binding site.
This survival rate is one area of obvious concern. Given the genetic variability of wild populations, there may be a few individuals that happen to have a mutation that is resistant to the activator. These immune individuals would then go on to found a new population.
The authors suggest that targeting a species that has gone through a recent bottleneck to decrease genetic variability might help. Another possibility might be to target multiple genes making the likelihood of an individual having and/or developing multiple mutations exceedingly unlikely. (This is the strategy used to target HIV, a virus with a high mutation rate.)
These authors have created an elegant system reminiscent of the one created by Baron Harkonnen in the novel Dune. In the book, a character named Thufir Hawat is given a slow acting poison by the Baron. Hawat can be controlled because he needs the antidote each day to survive. Once the antidote is removed, he dies.
Here the researchers have given the poison and engineered the antidote into their new strain. When this strain mates with a strain lacking the antidote, like a wild strain, most of the progeny die. Like Hawat, the yeast die for the good of mankind. And hopefully those pesky weeds can be prevented from picking up transgenes too.
by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics
Categories: Research Spotlight
Tags: CRISPR, horizontal gene transfer, synthetic biology
December 13, 2017
Imagine you own a rifle factory and you want to retool it to make solar panels instead. Or vice versa.
It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to make small, incremental changes. Make one change, test to see how it works, make a second change, test to see how that works, and so on.
Not only is this inefficient and time consuming, but you may not end up with the best factory for making your new product. The best approach is to rip out the old machinery and replace it all at once. Or at the very least make many changes at a time.
The same sorts of problems exist for cellular factories—microbes we engineer to churn out useful products. Ideally we would want to get to an optimized, retooled cellular factory as soon as possible by making as many changes as we can at once. And yet, that is not how we currently do it.
Most of the time when we repurpose a microbial organism like Saccharomyces cerevisiae to make something new, we do it the slow way. We either do a screen to find genes that affect the process or change a known gene and analyze the results. We then use this mutant strain as a starting point to repeat the process. Over many cycles, we hopefully get to a yeast strain that can make something new or more efficiently.
Not only is this time consuming and inefficient, but we might miss some synergies that can happen when two or three genes are tweaked at once. This is no way to retool a factory!
In a new study out in Nature Communications, Lian and coworkers came up with a clever way to make many changes all at once in yeast. And they aren’t limited to just deleting genes either. They can transcriptionally activate, transcriptionally interfere, or delete specific genes. Which is where they got their clever acronym for their process—CRISPR-AID.
As you can tell from the name, their system uses the seemingly ubiquitous gene-editing tool CRISPR. And they use it in some very cool ways to get all three processes happening in a cell at the same time with different genes.
Conventional CRISPR works through a nuclease being guided by an aptly named guide RNA (gRNA) to a precise place in cell’s DNA through base pairing between the DNA and the gRNA. Once there, the nuclease makes a double-stranded break and at least in yeast, the cell invariably repairs it using homologous directed repair (HDR). (Other eukaryotes tend to “fix” their DNA with the more error prone non-homologous end joining [NHEJ] pathway. Yes, yeast is superior in yet another way!)
Scientists have been able to tweak this system to activate or repress gene transcription by knocking out the nuclease activity of the CRISPR protein and adding back either an activation or repression domain. Now they have an RNA-guided, sequence specific transcription activator or repressor.
This is a great tool chest of gene editing tools but there is one problem—how to get the right protein to the right spot when all three use a gRNA for specificity. Like Mork from Ork turning to Mindy to help guide him on Earth, Lian and coworkers turned to a PAM to help guide these proteins to the right place in the yeast genome.
The protospacer adjacent motif (PAM) is a small part of the gRNA that binds the DNA and helps to pry it open so the rest of the gRNA can bind. Every gRNA has to have a PAM or the CRISPR protein won’t bind.
It turns out that different bacteria have different CRISPR systems that use different PAMs. The idea then is to use a CRISPR protein from different bacteria for each of the three different functions of the CRISPR-AID system.
The most common form of CRISPR protein is Cas9 from Streptococcus pyogenes (Sp), which has NGG for its PAM sequence. Lian and coworkers used a nuclease deficient form of this protein attached to a repressor domain to create their transcription interference tool dSpCas9-RD1152. (The d means the nuclease in inactivated, the Sp is the bacteria it came from, and the RD1152 is the repression domain.)
For their deletion tool they turned to the Staphylococcus aureus (Sa) Cas9, SaCas9, which has NGRRT or NGRRN for its PAM sequence.
They turned to a different CRISPR protein, Cfp1 from Lachnospiraceae bacterium ND2006 (Lb), for their activation tool. This protein recognizes TTN as its PAM. They attached an activation domain to a nuclease-deficient form to generate dLbCfp1-VP.
All three proteins were stably integrated into a yeast cell. Now that their toolbox was full and their yeast cell ready, Lian and coworkers set out to show that these tools were effective.
They first used it on a known system, making beta-carotene in yeast. Previous work had shown that increasing the expression of the HMG1 gene, decreasing the activity of ERG9, and deleting ROX1 led to increased beta-carotene production.
They used CRISPR-AID to accomplish all three in one fell swoop. Not only did expression from HMG1 go up, expression from ERG9 go down, and ROX1 get deleted, but the resulting yeast also made more beta-carotene. They got a 2.8-fold increase in beta-carotene compared to only a 1.7 fold increase by hitting just one of the genes.
They next set out to increase expression of recombinant Trichoderma reesei endoglucanase II (EGII). Previous work had identified 14 genes that increased expression when activated, 17 that increased expression when inhibited and 5 that increased expression when deleted. Each of these was done as a single gene experiment.
Lian and coworkers created a library of gRNAs that could target each of the 1620 possible combinations to see if any combination would lead to a synergistic increase in activity. They found a combination that did just that—increased expression of PDI1, decreased expression of MNN9, and deletion of PMR1 led to the highest yield of EGII. The increased expression of EGII was beyond what any of the three did on their own.
So the system appears to be working well. Multiple targets can be upregulated, downregulated or deleted all at once.
While we are getting closer to being able to retool microbial factories as efficiently as brick and mortar ones, we aren’t there yet. That will require a deeper understanding of how a particular microbial organism works. And there is no better understood eukaryote than our old friend S. cerevisiae.
Like a good PAM sequence, Mindy helps Mork find his place in the world.
by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics
Categories: Research Spotlight
Tags: CRISPR, gene editing, microbial factory