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Alternative CRISPR system Cpf1 could improve genome editing.

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Synthetic biologist Feng Zhang is convinced that genome editing can still be made more efficient.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique is revolutionizing genetic research: Scientists have already used it to engineer crops, livestock and even human embryos, and it may one day yield new ways to treat disease.

But now one of the technique's pioneers thinks that he has found a way to make CRISPR even simpler and more precise. In a paper published in Cell on 25 September, a team led by synthetic biologist Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reports the discovery of a protein called Cpf1 that may overcome one of CRISPR-Cas9’s few limitations; although the system works well for disabling genes, it is often difficult to truly edit them by replacing one DNA sequence with another.

The CRISPR/Cas9 system evolved as a way for bacteria and archaea to defend themselves against invading viruses. It is found in a wide range of these organisms, and uses an enzyme called Cas9 to cut DNA at a site specified by 'guide' strands of RNA. Researchers have turned CRISPR/Cas9 into a molecular-biology powerhouse that can be used in other organisms. The cuts made by the enzyme are repaired by the cell’s natural DNA-repair processes.

CRISPR is much simpler than previous gene-editing methods, but Zhang thought there was still room for improvement.

So he and his colleagues searched the bacterial kingdom to find an alternative to the Cas9 enzyme commonly used in laboratories. In April, they reported that they had discovered a smaller version of  Cas9 in the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. The small size makes the enzyme easier to shuttle into mature cells — a crucial destination for some potential therapies.

The team was also intrigued by Cpf1, a protein that looks very different from Cas9, but is present in some bacteria with CRISPR. The scientists evaluated Cpf1 enzymes from 16 different bacteria, eventually finding two that could cut human DNA.

They also uncovered some curious differences between how Cpf1 and Cas9 work. Cas9 requires two RNA molecules to cut DNA; Cpf1 needs only one. The proteins also cut DNA at different places, offering researchers more options when selecting a site to edit. “This opens up a lot of possibilities for all the things we could not target before,” says epigeneticist Luca Magnani of Imperial College London.

Cpf1 also cuts DNA in a different way. Cas9 cuts both strands in a DNA molecule at the same position, leaving behind what molecular biologists call ‘blunt’ ends. But Cpf1 leaves one strand longer than the other, creating a 'sticky' end. Blunt ends are not as easy to work with: a DNA sequence could be inserted in either end, for example, whereas a sticky end will only pair with a complementary sticky end.

“The sticky ends carry information that can direct the insertion of the DNA,” says Zhang. “It makes the insertion much more controllable.”

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The newly described Cpf1 system differs in several important ways from the previously described Cas9, with significant implications for research and therapeutics, as well as for business and intellectual property:

  • First: In its natural form, the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 forms a complex with two small RNAs, both of which are required for the cutting activity. The Cpf1 system is simpler in that it requires only a single RNA. The Cpf1 enzyme is also smaller than the standard SpCas9, making it easier to deliver into cells and tissues.

  • Second, and perhaps most significantly: Cpf1 cuts DNA in a different manner than Cas9. When the Cas9 complex cuts DNA, it cuts both strands at the same place, leaving 'blunt ends' that often undergo mutations as they are rejoined. With the Cpf1 complex the cuts in the two strands are offset, leaving short overhangs on the exposed ends. This is expected to help with precise insertion, allowing researchers to integrate a piece of DNA more efficiently and accurately.

  • Third: Cpf1 cuts far away from the recognition site, meaning that even if the targeted gene becomes mutated at the cut site, it can likely still be re-cut, allowing multiple opportunities for correct editing to occur.

  • Fourth: the Cpf1 system provides new flexibility in choosing target sites. Like Cas9, the Cpf1 complex must first attach to a short sequence known as a PAM, and targets must be chosen that are adjacent to naturally occurring PAM sequences. The Cpf1 complex recognizes very different PAM sequences from those of Cas9. This could be an advantage in targeting some genomes, such as in the malaria parasite as well as in humans.

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