CRISPR-Cas Protein Roles and Teamwork

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New research published in the journal Molecular Cell highlights a collaborative study between researchers at the University of Georgia and UConn Health. The study, which focuses on the basic biological functions of the RNA-based viral immune system known as CRISPR-Cas, highlights the importance of several proteins and how they work together. CRISPR-Cas evolved in bacteria and archaea to ward off attacks from viruses and invaded.  When a bacterium is attacked by a virus, it makes a record of the virus’s DNA by chopping it up into pieces and incorporating a small segment of the invader’s DNA into its own genome. It then uses this DNA to make RNAs that bind with a bacterial protein that then kills the viral DNA. In this new study, researchers discovered much more about how the system works.

Distinguished Research Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project Michael Terns and UGA postdoctoral fellow Masami Shiimori collaborated with Brenton Graveley and Sandra Garrett at UConn Health to sequence millions of genomes to learn more about the process. Graveley is professor and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences and associate director of the Institute for Systems Genomics at UConn Health, and Garrett is a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory.

“This research is more fundamental and basic than studies that are trying to determine how to use CRISPR for therapeutic or biomedical application,” said Terns. “Our study is about the unique first step in the process, known as adaptation, where fragments of DNA are recognized and integrated into the host genome and provide immunity for future generations.”

Previously, researchers did not understand how the cell recognized the virus as an invader, nor which bacterial proteins were necessary for successful integration and immunity.

“In this project we were able to determine how the bacterial immune system creates a molecular memory to remove harmful viral DNA sequences and how this is passed down to the bacterial progeny,” said Graveley.

By looking at patterns in the data, the researchers discovered several new findings about how two previously poorly characterized Cas4 proteins function in tandem with Cas1 and Cas2 proteins found in all CRISPR-Cas systems.

The cover of Molecular Cell in which the paper was originally published.

In this initial adaptation phase, one of two different Cas4 proteins recognizes a signaling placeholder in the sequence that occurs adjacent to the snippet of DNA that is excised.

When the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins are present in the cell with either of two Cas4 protein nucleases, Cas4-1 and Cas4-2, they act like the generals of this army-based immune system, communicating uniform sized clipped DNA fragments, directions on where to go next and ultimately instructions that destroy the lethal DNA fragment.

In order for a cell to successfully recognize and excise strands of DNA, incorporate them into its own genome and achieve immunity, the Cas4 proteins must be present in conjunction with the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins.

“Cas4 is present in many CRISPR-Cas systems, but the roles of the proteins were mysterious,” said Terns. “In our system, there are two Cas4 proteins that are essential for governing this process so that functional RNAs are made and immunity is conferred”

This is exciting new research that helps inform other researchers about the role of these particular proteins in successful immunity and contributes to larger base of knowledge with the end goal of trying to combat genetic diseases such as diabetes or cancer. Terns and Gravely have been collaborating on research for a decade now and clearly have an unwavering interest in trying to know more about this elegant RNA-based viral immune system. Great to see continued success and discovery on this topic from one of our very own. Kudos. You can read more about the study here