Mechanisms of RNA-targeting CRISPR systems and their applications for RNA editing

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Genetic modification studies are central to understanding gene function and are the bedrock of molecular biology. The development of novel, CRISPR-based technologies for genome engineering in the last decade has revolutionized nearly every field of biology by simplifying the process of editing DNA genomes. In contrast, there are currently no comparable tools for editing RNA. Our goal is to develop facile CRISPR-based RNA editing methods that will transform our understanding of RNA metabolism, viruses and the repair pathways that govern RNA biology. I didn't initially come to MSU intending to study SARS-CoV-2, but the growing importance of this topic, combined with unanticipated intersections with my interest in CRISPRs, ultimately lead to several projects in this area. While participating in genomic surveillance, we identified a naturally occurring deletion within ORF7a, a viral accessory protein. We determined that this deletion results in the loss of function of ORF7a, limiting the virus' ability to evade host interferon responses, and reduced viral fitness. My focus then moved to Type-III CRISPR systems. While CRISPR has become synonymous with genome engineering, these systems naturally evolved in prokaryotes as an adaptive immune system against bacteriophages. Type-III CRISPR systems are unique, as they are one of two groups of CRISPR systems to target RNA rather than DNA. To develop type III systems for editing RNA, we designed and purified a series of type III complexes and showed that these systems function as programable nucleases. We then adapted a method for targeted RNA repair in vitro following cleavage and demonstrate that this approach results in edited RNA. In addition to cleaving the RNA target, target recognition by type III CRISPR systems also activates a polymerase domain that generates signaling molecules that activate ancillary CRISPR nucleases. Working with several members of the team, I set out to determine substrate preferences for each ancillary nuclease in Thermus thermophilus. We expected that activating these immune components would result in dramatic changes in bacterial growth kinetics. However, my experiments failed to identify a reliable phenotype, suggesting that this expression system is not a faithful representation of Type-III immunity.




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