The type V-A Cas12a protein can process its CRISPR array, a feature useful for multiplexed gene editing and regulation. However, CRISPR arrays often exhibit unpredictable performance due to interference between multiple guide RNA (gRNAs). Here, we report that Cas12a array performance is hypersensitive to the GC content of gRNA spacers, as high-GC spacers can impair activity of the downstream gRNA. We analyze naturally occurring CRISPR arrays and observe that natural repeats always contain an AT-rich fragment that separates gRNAs, which we term a CRISPR separator. Inspired by this observation, we design short, AT-rich synthetic separators (synSeparators) that successfully remove the disruptive effects between gRNAs. We further demonstrate enhanced simultaneous activation of seven endogenous genes in human cells using an array containing the synSeparator. These results elucidate a previously underexplored feature of natural CRISPR arrays and demonstrate how nature-inspired engineering solutions can improve multi-gene control in mammalian cells.
All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in the manuscript and supporting files. Source data have been provided for all figures.
- Lei S Qi
- Lei S Qi
- Jens P Magnusson
- Jens P Magnusson
The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.
- Joseph T Wade, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, United States
© 2021, Magnusson et al.
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.
CRISPR technology has made generation of gene knock-outs widely achievable in cells. However, once inactivated, their re-activation remains difficult, especially in diploid cells. Here, we present DExCon (Doxycycline-mediated endogenous gene Expression Control), DExogron (DExCon combined with auxin-mediated targeted protein degradation), and LUXon (light responsive DExCon) approaches which combine one-step CRISPR-Cas9-mediated targeted knockin of fluorescent proteins with an advanced Tet-inducible TRE3GS promoter. These approaches combine blockade of active gene expression with the ability to re-activate expression on demand, including activation of silenced genes. Systematic control can be exerted using doxycycline or spatiotemporally by light, and we demonstrate functional knock-out/rescue in the closely related Rab11 family of vesicle trafficking regulators. Fluorescent protein knock-in results in bright signals compatible with low-light live microscopy from monoallelic modification, the potential to simultaneously image different alleles of the same gene, and bypasses the need to work with clones. Protein levels are easily tunable to correspond with endogenous expression through cell sorting (DExCon), timing of light illumination (LUXon), or by exposing cells to different levels of auxin (DExogron). Furthermore, our approach allowed us to quantify previously unforeseen differences in vesicle dynamics, transferrin receptor recycling, expression kinetics, and protein stability among highly similar endogenous Rab11 family members and their colocalization in triple knock-in ovarian cancer cell lines.
In mammalian cells genes that are in close proximity can be transcriptionally coupled: silencing or activating one gene can affect its neighbors. Understanding these dynamics is important for natural processes, such as heterochromatin spreading during development and aging, and when designing synthetic gene regulation circuits. Here, we systematically dissect this process in single cells by recruiting and releasing repressive chromatin regulators at dual-gene synthetic reporters, and measuring how fast gene silencing and reactivation spread as a function of intergenic distance and configuration of insulator elements. We find that silencing by KRAB, associated with histone methylation, spreads between two genes within hours, with a time delay that increases with distance. This fast KRAB-mediated spreading is not blocked by the classical cHS4 insulators. Silencing by histone deacetylase HDAC4 of the upstream gene can also facilitate background silencing of the downstream gene by PRC2, but with a days-long delay that does not change with distance. This slower silencing can sometimes be stopped by insulators. Gene reactivation of neighboring genes is also coupled, with strong promoters and insulators determining the order of reactivation. Our data can be described by a model of multi-gene regulation that builds upon previous knowledge of heterochromatin spreading, where both gene silencing and gene reactivation can act at a distance, allowing for coordinated dynamics via chromatin regulator recruitment.