Gene editing works better if template DNA isn’t ‘naked’

A more natural form of DNA, where it is wrapped around proteins, is a more efficient template for adding new sequences to the genome in gene-editing experiments.
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Macrostructure of DNA. Image credit: Adapted from OpenStax (CC BY 4.0)

Genome editing is a powerful tool used across a wide range of biomedical research. There are several different techniques used, depending on the type of edit being made, and one known as homology-directed repair – or HDR for short – is a common technique for precisely inserting large sections of DNA, such as those needed to make desired proteins in cells.

HDR takes advantage of the cell’s mechanisms for repairing damage to DNA if both strands of the DNA double helix are broken. The mechanism relies on a DNA template to stitch the strands back together. To insert or replace a new DNA sequence, scientists can add a customized piece of DNA of their choosing to the cell so that it might be incorporated into the genome. However, HDR is not very efficient, and the success rate is often less than a few percent.

In HDR gene editing, the DNA template is typically added as purified, or ‘naked’, DNA. However, the natural form of DNA in cells, known as chromatin, is where the DNA helix is wrapped around a cluster of proteins known as histones. Cruz-Becerra and Kadonaga tested the idea that DNA in the form of chromatin might be more effective as a template for HDR than naked DNA.

The two approaches were compared to see which was better at inserting a sequence at three different locations in the genome of lab-grown human cells. In these experiments, the chromatin templates were 2.3- to 7.4-fold more efficient than the naked DNA. Also, the DNA in human cells is organized as pairs of chromosomes, and chromatin was better than naked DNA for editing both copies of the chromosome pairs rather than only one of them. In addition, the chromatin is potentially less toxic to the cells. Cruz-Becerra and Kadonaga hope that this will be useful for increasing the success rate of HDR experiments and potentially other methods of gene editing in the future.