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Mol Cell Biol. 2001 June; 21(12): 3926–3934.

Site-Specific Genomic Integration in Mammalian Cells Mediated by Phage [var phi]C31 Integrase


We previously established that the phage [var phi]C31 integrase, a site-specific recombinase, mediates efficient integration in the human cell environment at attB and attP phage attachment sites on extrachromosomal vectors. We show here that phage attP sites inserted at various locations in human and mouse chromosomes serve as efficient targets for precise site-specific integration. Moreover, we characterize native “pseudo” attP sites in the human and mouse genomes that also mediate efficient integrase-mediated integration. These sites have partial sequence identity to attP. Such sites form naturally occurring targets for integration. This phage integrase-mediated reaction represents an effective site-specific integration system for higher cells and may be of value in gene therapy and other chromosome engineering strategies.

For the past 25 years, it has been possible to construct precisely designed DNA molecules in the test tube thanks to the techniques of recombinant DNA. In contrast, the ability to make controlled and efficient alterations in the genomes of living higher cells has been limited. The use of site-specific recombinases such as Cre and FLP provided an important advance (17), but because of the reversibility of these enzyme reactions, their main utility has been for creating deletions. For the integration of new material into the genome, fortuitous integration of transfected DNA is most often used, and it produces integration at random locations at low frequency. Homologous recombination provides site specificity, but at very low efficiency (26).

We began working with another site-specific recombinase, the phage [var phi]C31 integrase, because it offered the potential for unidirectional integration that would therefore occur at higher net frequencies than the reversible integration directed by recombinases, such as Cre. Cre recombines two identical loxP sites, recreating two identical sites after recombination that can undergo a subsequent round of recombination. In contrast, the attB and attP recognition sites recognized by the [var phi]C31 integrase are dissimilar in sequence (15). After reaction, the recombined att sites differ from attB and attP and are refractory to further synapsis by the integrase, thus locking in integration reactions (23, 24). We demonstrated that this enzyme, derived from a Streptomyces phage (9), worked well in the human cell environment (7), consistent with its lack of cofactor requirements (23). This feature distinguishes it from better known phage integrases, such as that of phage λ, which does require cofactors (10). The λ integrase is in the family of recombinases that includes Cre and FLP and carries out a tyrosine-mediated strand exchange (4, 13). The [var phi]C31 integrase is in the other major family of site-specific recombinases that includes many resolvases and invertases and uses a serine-catalyzed reaction mechanism (20). The two site-specific recombinase families are unrelated. The [var phi]C31 integrase is a member of a recently discovered subclass of the serine recombinase family whose members are especially long and function as phage integrases (9, 15, 23).

By using extrachromosomal plasmids in human cells, we documented that the [var phi]C31 integrase mediates highly efficient intramolecular integration reactions (>50%) and also efficient intermolecular integration into an Epstein-Barr virus model chromosome (7). These results suggest that the [var phi]C31 integrase would be useful for mediating integration into mammalian chromosomes, which forms the subject of this study. We created human and mouse cell lines containing att sites inserted at random locations in the chromosomes. These lines were tested for the efficiency of integration of incoming plasmids bearing marker genes and att sites when cotransfected with the [var phi]C31 integrase gene. We describe attP-containing cell lines that exhibit site-specific integration at appreciable frequencies.

Another opportunity afforded by this integrase system is the possibility of accessing integration at naturally occurring chromosomal sequences. Such reactions would obviate the need to first place a target att site in the genome. This strategy is of particular relevance in applications such as in vivo gene therapy, where a high frequency of integration in unaltered patient tissue is desired. We previously showed that the sizes of the attB and attP target sites recognized by the [var phi]C31 integrase are 34 and 39 bp, respectively (7). This size range makes it statistically feasible that “pseudo” att sites, sites with degenerate att identity that is still recognizable by the enzyme, may be present in large genomes, such as those of mammals (25). We document here the presence of active pseudo attP sites in the human and mouse genomes that are recognized at significant frequencies by the [var phi]C31 integrase. This phenomenon gives rise to a strategy for the efficient and precise alteration of the genomes of living cells at predetermined sites.



Plasmids used for the measurement of luciferase activity were made as follows. A fragment carrying the cytomegalovirus (CMV) immediate-early promoter was cloned into the SmaI site upstream of the firefly luciferase gene of pGL3-basic (Promega Corporation, Madison, Wis.) to create pL. Plasmid pL-attB (Fig. (Fig.1A)1A) was generated by cloning a 307-bp EcoRI fragment from pTA-attB (7) containing the minimal length [var phi]C31 attB site and ~270 bp of surrounding [var phi]C31 sequence into the BamHI site of pL. Plasmid pL-attP was generated by cloning a 250-bp EcoRI fragment from pTA-attP (7) containing the minimal attP site and ~210 bp of surrounding [var phi]C31 sequence into the BamHI site of pL.

FIG. 1
Plasmids used to detect chromosomal integration. (A) The pL-attB plasmid carried the [var phi]C31 attB site and the luciferase gene and was used to measure the level and persistence of luciferase expression in the presence and absence of the [var phi]C31 ...

Plasmid pHZ-attP (Fig. (Fig.1B)1B) was used to generate cell lines containing wild-type attP, while pHZ-attB was used to generate attB cell lines and in plasmid rescue experiments. To generate pHZ-attB, a multiple cloning site was first added into the HindIII site of pTK-Hyg (Clontech, Palo Alto, Calif.) to facilitate further cloning, generating pMSE. A 1-kbp BamHI fragment containing the upstream mouse sequence transcriptional terminator sequence from pUCE (27) was cloned downstream of the hygromycin resistance gene in pMSE to generate pMSEU. The UMS terminator prevents read-through transcription from the herpes simplex virus-thymidine kinase (HSV-TK) promoter. A 673-bp RsrII-SphI fragment from pZeoSV2(+) (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, Calif.) containing the EM-7 bacterial promoter, zeocin open reading frame, and simian virus 40 poly(A) region was cloned into the SmaI site of pMSEU to generate pMSEUZ1. Plasmid pHZ-attB was then generated by cloning a 307-bp EcoRI fragment from pTA-attB (7) containing the [var phi]C31 attB site into the BamHI site of pMSEUZ1. Plasmid pHZ-attP was constructed similarly, except that a 250-bp EcoRI fragment from pTA-attP (7) containing the [var phi]C31 attP site was cloned into the BamHI site of pMSEUZ1.

Plasmid pEGFP-C1 was obtained from Clontech and was used to measure transfection efficiency by observing transfected cells under a UV microscope 48 h after transfection and counting bright cells. Plasmids pNC-attB (Fig. (Fig.1C)1C) and pNC-attP were used as incoming donor plasmids for integration and were made as follows. A 307-bp EcoRI fragment from pTA-attB (7) containing [var phi]C31 attB was cloned into the BglII site of pL so that the attB site was 3′ of the CMV promoter. A 1.2-kb MluI-HindIII fragment containing the CMV-attB fragment was then cloned into the MluI site of pEGFP-C1 to generate pNC-attB. For pNC-attP, a 630-bp BglII-RsrII fragment from pZeoSV2(+) containing the CMV promoter was cloned into the BamHI site of pTA-attP (7) to generate pCRPCMV1. A 960-bp HindIII-XhoI fragment from pCRPCMV1 containing the CMV promoter and the attP site was cloned into the MluI site of pEGFP-C1 to generate pNC-attP.

pCMVSPORTβGal (Life Technologies, Gaithersburg, Md.) was used as carrier DNA, and pCMV-Int was used for [var phi]C31 integrase expression (7).

Cell culture and luciferase assays.

293 human embryonic kidney cells (6) and mouse NIH 3T3 cells (American Type Culture Collection, Manassas, Va.) were grown in Dulbecco's modified Eagle medium (Life Technologies) supplemented with 110 mg of sodium pyruvate/liter and 9% fetal bovine serum.

To assay luciferase expression, 293 or 3T3 cells that had reached 50 to 80% confluency in a 60-mm-diameter dish were transfected with 50 ng of the donor plasmid containing a luciferase expression cassette and either no att site (pL), one attB site (pL-attB), or one attP site (pL-attP), and 5 μg of either pCMV-Int or pCMVSPORTβGal carrier, by using Lipofectamine (Life Technologies). At 24 h after transfection (day 1), the cells were transferred onto 100-mm-diameter plates at an appropriate dilution. Seventy-two hours after transfection (day 3), two-thirds of the cells were harvested and a crude protein extract was prepared from them as described below. The remaining cells were replated onto 100-mm-diameter plates. This process was repeated every 2 to 4 days, depending on the confluency of the cells. Three such experiments were performed with 293 cells, and two experiments were performed with NIH 3T3 cells.

Harvested cells (approximately 107) were washed three times with ice-cold phosphate-buffered saline. The cells were then resuspended in 400 μl of cold lysis buffer (25 mM Tris-HCl [pH 7.8], 2 mM EDTA, 0.5% Triton X-100, 5% glycerol) and incubated on ice for 5 min. The lysed cell suspension was centrifuged for 5 min in a microcentrifuge. The supernatant was carefully removed, transferred into aliquots, and stored at −80°C. Luciferase Assay Reagent (Promega Corporation) was used to determine luciferase activity in crude protein extracts by using a TD-20e luminometer (Turner Designs, Sunnyvale, Calif.). The relative luciferase activity in the crude protein extracts was standardized with respect to Quantilum recombinant luciferase (Promega). The luciferase activity in the protein extracts was further normalized with respect to the protein concentration. Protein concentration of the extracts was determined using the DC protein assay (Bio-Rad Laboratories, Hercules, Calif.). Results were expressed as a percentage of day 3 luciferase values.

Construction of att cell lines.

Plasmids pHZ-attB and pHZ-attP were treated with HpaI to generate linear molecules. Either 5 or 10 μg of linearized plasmid DNA were electroporated into 293 and NIH 3T3 cells using a Bio-Rad Gene Pulser according to the manufacturer's recommendations. The cells were then plated onto nonselective medium and allowed to recover. After 24 h, selection was started using medium containing 200 μg of hygromycin B (Calbiochem, La Jolla, Calif.)/ml. Single, well-isolated colonies were picked 12 to 14 days after the start of selection and expanded until ready for analysis. Cell lines were screened for the presence of the att site by PCR and Southern analysis. Four attP-containing 293 cell lines (293P1, 293P2, 293P3, and 293P4) and three attP-containing 3T3 cell lines (3T3P1, 3T3P2, and 3T3P3) were selected for further analysis, along with several attB cell lines of each cell type.

Selection assays.

Unmodified 293 and 293 att-containing cell lines were grown to 50 to 80% confluency in 60-mm-diameter dishes and transfected with 50 ng of the donor plasmid and 5 μg of either pCMV-Int or pCMVSPORTβGal carrier by using Lipofectamine (Life Technologies). At 24 h after transfection, the cells were transferred onto 100-mm-diameter dishes at an appropriate dilution. We found that 5 μg of DNA is near the upper limit for transfection of 293 cells on 60-mm-diameter dishes without appreciable toxicity. At this point, the total number of transfected cells was determined by counting the number of enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP)-expressing cells. The transfection frequency ranged from 4 to 7% for 293 cells. A further 24 h after expansion, selection was started with medium containing either 350 μg of Geneticin (G418, a neomycin analog; Life Technologies)/ml or a combination of Geneticin and 200 μg of zeocin (Invitrogen)/ml. Selection was continued for 14 days, and individual colonies were counted. The integration frequency was calculated as the ratio of the number of colonies obtained to the total number of transfected cells and was expressed as a percentage. Similar experiments were performed with NIH 3T3 cells and 3T3 att-containing cell lines, with the following changes: 50 ng of donor plasmid was transfected along with 2 μg of either pCMV-Int or pCMVSPORTβGal carrier by using Lipofectamine Plus (Life Technologies). The transfection frequency ranged from 1 to 5% for 3T3. Selection was performed with medium containing either 650 μg of Geneticin/ml or 650 μg of Geneticin/ml and 200 μg of zeocin/ml.

Plasmid rescue and sequence analysis of integrants at pseudo att sites.

Unmodified human 293 and mouse 3T3 cells were cotransfected with attB donor plasmid pHZ-attB and [var phi]C31 integrase expression plasmid pCMV-Int. Transfections were split to three 100-mm-diameter tissue culture dishes 24 h after transfection, and selection with hygromycin (200 μg/ml) was begun 48 h after transfection. After 2 weeks of selection, colonies were trypsinized and redistributed over the plates to generate pools of hygromycin-resistant integrant clones. The pools were grown to confluency, and genomic DNA was prepared using a Blood and Cell Culture DNA Maxi kit (Qiagen, Valencia, Calif.).

To recover integrated pHZ-attB plasmids along with flanking genomic sequences, genomic DNA was linearized with two sets of restriction enzymes with compatible ends that did not cleave within the plasmid (BamHI and BglII; XbaI, SpeI, and NheI). Digests were ligated with T4 DNA ligase under dilute conditions favoring monomer circularization. Ligations were extracted with phenol:chloroform and were ethanol precipitated, and a fraction (25%) was electroporated into competent DH10B Escherichia coli cells. Bacteria were plated on Luria-Bertani agar containing 50 μg of zeocin/ml and 100 μg of ampicillin/ml to select for two of the resistance genes contained by pHZ-attB. Plasmid DNA was prepared from single colonies and subjected to restriction mapping and DNA sequencing. Primers used for sequencing were attB-F (5′-TACCGTCGACGATGTAGGTCACGGTC-3′) and attB-R (5′- GTCGACATGCCCGCCGTGACCG-3′).

Analysis of distribution of integration sites.

pNC-attB was transfected into the four 293 attP-containing cell lines as described above. After 14 days of neomycin selection, individual colonies were picked and expanded for further analysis of integration. A total of 24 neomycin-resistant clones and 24 neomycin- and zeocin-resistant clones were picked from each cell line, for a total of 96 neomycin-resistant clones and 96 neomycin- and zeocin-resistant clones. Genomic DNA was prepared from each clone using the DNeasy 96 Tissue kit (Qiagen) and screened for the presence of site-specific recombination junctions. These genomic DNA samples were amplified by PCR using primers specific for a junction generated by a site-specific recombination reaction between attP and attB. The remaining neomycin-resistant clones were similarly screened for integration into pseudo attP site human ψA by using primers specific for that site.


Genomic integration detected by stable luciferase expression.

We wished to determine whether the [var phi]C31 integrase could direct measurable integration into the chromosomes of unmodified human and mouse cells. As a first approach, we placed the luciferase gene on an incoming attP or attB plasmid construct and cotransfected with a plasmid expressing the integrase. We then measured the expression of luciferase over a time course. These results revealed a statistically significant increase in long-term luciferase expression in human 293 cells when the gene was transfected on a plasmid bearing attB in the presence of integrase (Fig. (Fig.2).2). The stability of luciferase expression over the 4-week time course, in contrast with its rapid extinction in the absence of integrase and an attB site, was consistent with integrase-mediated integration of the luciferase gene into the chromosomes. The dependence of the reaction on integrase and attB suggested that native sites similar to those of attP were being recognized and accessed in the human genome. A statistically significant increase in luciferase expression was not observed when the incoming plasmid carried attP (Fig. (Fig.2).2). Similar results were seen when these experiments were carried out with mouse 3T3 cells. These data suggested that sites similar to attP were also being recognized in the mouse genome, as confirmed and examined in detail below.

FIG. 2
Luciferase expression after transfection of att-luciferase plasmids into unmodified 293 cells. Shown is the time course of luciferase expression for constructs that carried the luciferase gene and either no att site (pL), attB (pL-attB), or attP (pL-attP) ...

Genomic integration detected by selection.

The luciferase studies suggested that attP sites recognized by the [var phi]C31 integrase were naturally resident in the genomes of human and mouse cells. To examine this possibility more closely, we cotransfected unmodified human 293 and mouse 3T3 cells with a plasmid bearing the neomycin resistance marker and either attB or attP, with and without a plasmid expressing the [var phi]C31 integrase. Negative controls included parallel transfections with a non-att-bearing plasmid.

The data in Table Table11 that were obtained with 293 and 3T3 cells indicate that an elevated frequency of neomycin-resistant colonies was observed in the presence of the attB-neo plasmid pNC-attB and pCMV-Int. Increases in the range of 5- to 10-fold for colony numbers of the mouse and human genomes suggested that one or more native genomic sites that can interact with integrase and attB were present in these genomes and that the frequency of integration at these sites competed favorably with the background of random integration. For the pNC-attP plasmid and pCMV-Int, only a slightly elevated frequency of neomycin-resistant colonies, less than twofold, was seen (data not shown), consistent with the results obtained with luciferase.

Integration frequency at native and inserted attP sitesa

Characterization of pseudo attP sites.

Efficient integration of plasmids bearing attB in unmodified human and mouse cells in the presence of [var phi]C31 integrase suggested that sites with significant identity to attP were present in these genomes. In order to test this prediction, we cloned the integration sites by plasmid rescue. Total DNA was prepared from pools of hygromycin-resistant 293 and 3T3 cells that had received pCMV-Int and pHZ-attB, which carried attB and the genes for hygromycin, zeocin, and ampicillin resistance. From the elevations in integration frequency observed above, ~80 to 90% of such integrations were expected to occur at native sites resembling attP. The genomic DNA was cut with sets of restriction enzymes with compatible ends that do not cut in pHZ-attB, was self-ligated, was transformed into E. coli cells, and was selected for the ampicillin and zeocin markers on pHZ-attB. Selection for two intact selectable markers on the plasmid served to limit the recovery of random integrants among the rescued plasmids. Sixty-seven colonies rescued from two independent pools of transfected human cells and 120 colonies rescued from four independent pools of transfected mouse cells were analyzed. Restriction enzyme digests and agarose gel analysis of the rescued plasmids displayed fragments expected for pHZ-attB, as well as various fragments contributed by the flanking genomic DNA for each integration event. This analysis showed that some of the rescued plasmids had the same fragment patterns within a species, consistent with repeated integrations into the same sites, while other plasmids were present as single occurrences.

In order to determine whether the integration events were integrase mediated, whether they were precise, and whether the integration sites possessed DNA sequence similarity to attP, we sequenced both of the attB-genome junctions of all 187 of the rescued plasmids. We used primers from within attB to sequence outward on both sides. In all cases, a junction was detected that fused half of attB with non-plasmid sequences. By colocalizing the crossover junctions with attB, these results confirmed that the integration events were mediated by integrase and were not random.

This DNA sequence information also allowed us to evaluate how many different genomic integration sites were present in our collection and the distribution of integrants among them. In the case of the human cells, one of the sites, which we designated human pseudo attP site A or ψA, received 32 of the 67 integration events analyzed at the sequence level. Because integration events from the same pool were not necessarily independent, some of the multiple occurrences could have come from the same mammalian clone. However, as noted below, the exact integration junctions at pseudo attP sites often differed slightly at the base pair level, so many integrants at ψA were demonstrably independent. Four other human sites, ψB, ψC, ψD, and ψE, occurred two or three times each. Another 26 sites were seen once each. Therefore, at least 31 locations in the human genome could be accessed by the [var phi]C31 integrase, although one of the sites, ψA, was used preferentially. Because of the large number of single occurrences, it is unlikely that we saturated the number of potential integration sites.

In mouse cells, of the 120 sets of integration junctions sequenced, 12 occurred at the same genomic site, which we designated mouse ψA. Another 20 sites received two to nine integration events each, and of these, at least four sites were recovered between independent pools of cells. Thirty-six sites received a single integration. Therefore, we identified 57 pseudo attP integration sites accessed by the [var phi]C31 integrase in the mouse genome, with some sites more favorable than others. As in human cells, the large number of single events suggested that we did not saturate the number of potential integration sites. However, in both species, the fraction of multiple occurrences suggested that we were beginning to approach the total number of integration sites.

The same attB primers used to identify the integration junctions allowed us to sequence 100 to 200 bp into the genomic flanking sequences, which we undertook for four of the most favored integration sites. In the cases of three human and one mouse integration sites, we used the genomic sequence on both sides of the integrated plasmid to develop appropriate PCR primers to retrieve the corresponding intact genomic fragment from the genome. The DNA sequences of these four regions and their GenBank accession numbers are reported in Fig. Fig.3A.3A. The sequence of human ψA was also determined for a 254-bp region of DNA prepared from genomic DNA derived from human diploid fibroblasts and was found to be identical to the corresponding sequence we obtained from 293 cells. All four genomic sequences encompassing these pseudo attP sites were present in the human and mouse databases.

FIG. 3
DNA sequence characterization of pseudo attP sites and recombination junctions in human and mouse cells. (A) The wild-type [var phi]C31 attP site is shown on top. The 3-bp TTG crossover region is marked, and arrows delineate the imperfect palindromes. ...

A comparison of these sequences in the region of the crossover point with that of attP allowed evaluation of the level of identity. For both the human and mouse ψA sites, over the 25-bp region centered over the 3-bp TTG core of the minimal attP site (7), the identity was 56% (14 out of 25), while it was 40% in this region for human ψC and 24% for ψD. We designate these sites as pseudo attP sites, meaning that while they differ in sequence from wild-type attP, they apparently possess enough sequence identity to trigger [var phi]C31 integrase-mediated pairing and reaction with attB. The 56% identity at human ψA, possibly in combination with favorable context features that are currently undefined, may lead to preferential use of this site in human cells by the [var phi]C31 integrase.

For those integrants at the four pseudo attP sites for which we determined the sequence of the unmodified genomic region, the crossover sequences on both sides of the integrant enabled us to define the precision of the recombination event. Several crossover junctions at human ψA are reported in Fig. Fig.3B3B and are representative of the many examples we sequenced. In some cases, the recombination junction between the incoming attB and the genomic pseudo attP was completely precise, with no loss or gain of bases. However, in most cases, a small deletion of 1 to 11 bp was present at the junction of attB and genomic pseudo attP sequences. The small deletions affected bases from the genome, attB, or both, varying for different integrants. Thus, integration events at pseudo attP sites were not completely precise at the sequence level, differing slightly between individual rescue events. The slightly different sequences present at the integration junctions confirmed the independence of many of the integration events cloned. The slight imprecision suggested that the relatively poor match of the pseudo attP site with wild-type attP impeded the ability of the [var phi]C31 integrase to complete the integration reaction. This result contrasted with recombination between wild-type attB and attP sites, which was always precise to the base (see below).

Integration at inserted att sites.

In order to determine whether the [var phi]C31 integrase could also mediate efficient integration at wild-type attB and attP sites placed into the context of mammalian chromosomes, we created human and mouse cell lines carrying attB or attP recognition sites and then cotransfected the lines with two plasmids, one expressing the [var phi]C31 integrase and one carrying the complementary att site along with the neomycin resistance selectable marker.

Plasmids containing either attB or attP and the hygromycin resistance marker (pHZ-attB and pHZ-attP; Fig. Fig.1B)1B) were transfected into human 293 cells and mouse 3T3 cells, and hygromycin-resistant colonies were picked and expanded. We verified that most of the clonal lines carried an integrated att site by the presence of an appropriate PCR band. Southern blottings on four of the 293 attP lines showed that pHZ-attP appeared to be integrated in a single copy at one location in each case. Human and mouse attP- and attB-containing 293 and 3T3 cell lines were transfected with a plasmid bearing the complementary att site and the neomycin resistance gene (pNC-attB or pNC-attP; Fig. Fig.1C),1C), with and without pCMV-Int. The integrated plasmid also contained a promoterless zeocin resistance gene that would have been activated by insertion of the incoming plasmid at the att site by virtue of the CMV promoter on the incoming pNC-attB plasmid (Fig. (Fig.11D).

For the four 293 and three 3T3 lines carrying an integrated attP site that we analyzed, we observed an elevated number of colonies when both the integrase and an attB plasmid were introduced and neomycin selection was carried out (Table (Table1).1). The increases were in the range of 10- to 20-fold for four human and three mouse attP cell lines. In the case of cell lines carrying an inserted attB site, only a modest (approximately twofold) increase in integration frequency was observed (data not shown), consistent with the results for pseudo attB sites.

On replicate plates, selection was carried out with both neomycin and zeocin. The double selection should have ensured that integrants were located at the inserted attP site, where provision of a promoter by the incoming pNC-attB activated the zeocin resistance gene. Modest numbers of such colonies were observed in the case of the human cells and were not detected in mouse cells (Table (Table1).1). However, evidence about the location of the integrants, described below, indicated that the zeocin selection underestimated the number of integrants at the inserted attP sites, probably due to poor expression of the zeocin resistance gene under control of the CMV promoter, especially in mouse cells. In an integrated position, the CMV promoter can be silenced over time. This effect is less severe in 293 cells, which express the adenovirus E1A protein (6). Integrations at attP in mouse cells were detected by PCR.

Distribution of integration events.

Because the overall integration frequency in human cell lines in which we had inserted an attP site was within twofold of the frequency in unmodified 293 cells, we expected that the integration events would be distributed between the attP site and the pseudo attP sites. To examine this point, we determined where the incoming attB plasmid was integrated by PCR analysis of DNA extracted from independent colonies derived from each of the four attP 293 cell lines. We examined 96 of the colonies selected with neomycin alone and 96 of the colonies selected with both neomycin and zeocin. In each case, 24 colonies were chosen at random from each of the four attP cell ines. The neomycin- and zeocin-resistant group represented 2 to 6% of the number of colonies seen with neomycin selection. They were expected to be located at the inserted attP sites because the incoming attB plasmid provides a promoter for the zeocin resistance gene (Fig. (Fig.1D).1D). As expected, essentially all (95 out of 96) neomycin- and zeocin-resistant colonies showed a PCR band indicative of site-specific integration into the inserted attP site.

By the same assay, 14 out of 96 (14.6%) of the colonies selected with neomycin alone were found to be integrated at the inserted attP site. In eight of these integrants where a PCR fragment was detected that indicated site-specific integration at attP (four neomycin resistant only and four neomycin and zeocin resistant), these fragments were sequenced to assess the precision of the integration events. The results showed that integrase-mediated recombination that was exact to the base had occurred between attP and attB in all cases (Fig. (Fig.3C).3C). The remaining 82 out of 96 of the neomycin-resistant colonies were not at the inserted attP site. Approximately 5 to 10% of these were expected to be random integrants, because the integrase-mediated reactions were approximately 10- to 20-fold above background. The rest of the integrants were presumably located at pseudo attP sites. As described above, the human ψA attP pseudo site is preferentially used. We analyzed the 82 non-attP integrants with PCR primers that detect integration at ψA and determined that 5 (5.2%) of the integrations occurred at this attP pseudo site. The remaining integrase-mediated integrants were expected to be distributed among the other pseudo attP sites.


This study demonstrates that site-specific integration into the chromosomes of living mammalian cells can be obtained by using the [var phi]C31 phage integrase, which carries out precise recombination between attP and attB recognition sites of minimum lengths of 30 to 40 bp (7). In cell lines containing an inserted attP site, we detected integration into the genome at frequencies approximately 10- to 20-fold above the spontaneous background frequency of random integration in mouse and human cells. Furthermore, in the absence of an inserted attP site, we detected integrase-mediated recombination at endogenous sites in the genome at frequencies ~5- to 10-fold above the background of random integration. These integration events were shown to occur at sets of native sequences having partial sequence identity to attP, which were termed pseudo attP sites.

These integration frequencies compare favorably to other site-specific integration systems described to date. Our frequencies are ~2 to 3 orders of magnitude higher than those typically involved in targeting by using homologous recombination. The frequency of integration by homologous recombination appears to be in the vicinity of 10−6 for most mammalian cells (2, 26), though it has been reported that this frequency can be increased up to 20-fold by using completely isogenic DNA (22). By making a double-strand break at the target site, homologous recombination efficiency can be improved by ~100-fold or more (3, 14). However, a means to generate such a break in endogenous sequences is currently lacking. The integration frequency mediated by the [var phi]C31 integrase is approximately 10- to 100-fold higher than Cre-mediated integration at an inserted wild-type loxP site (18) or integration mediated by FLP at an inserted FRT site (12). Use of specially designed loxP cassettes designed to limit the reverse reaction has resulted in higher integration frequencies (5, 16, 17). However, this strategy is not applicable when using endogenous sequences as targets. The [var phi]C31 integrase appears to be more efficient in mammalian cells than phage integrases of the tyrosine-catalyzed site-specific recombinase family, such as integrases from phages λ and HK022 (8, 11). Integration mediated by retroviruses and some transposases can be efficient (1, 28), but it takes place at random, leading to mutagenesis and inconsistency of gene expression.

This study demonstrated that in the presence of the [var phi]C31 integrase, a plasmid bearing attB will be efficiently integrated into mammalian genomes. In unmodified human cells, nearly 90% of the integration events will be integrase mediated and will be distributed among a set of pseudo attP sites. By sequencing the junctions at 67 rescued integration events, we identified a hierarchy of pseudo attP sites, some of which were used repeatedly. The pattern of single and recurring sites in this collection of 31 different pseudo attP sites suggests that the total number of pseudo attP sites may be between 102 and 103, with some sites significantly preferred over others. While integration is occurring at multiple sites, the level of specificity is still dramatically increased over that of random integration. Since the genome contains approximately 3 × 109 bp, many of which are presumably available for random integration, restriction to approximately 102 integration sites represents a gain of several orders of magnitude in specificity.

In mouse cells, where 120 integration events were sequenced, we identified 57 pseudo attP sites, 21 of which were recurrent, creating a similar picture of pseudo attP site frequency. Since the identity of these sites to the wild-type attP was <60%, one would expect a similar number of sites in any mammalian genome. The number of pseudo attP sites found in mammalian genomes suggests that pseudo attP sites for the [var phi]C31 integrase also exist in smaller genomes, such as those of important model organisms like Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila, and Arabidopsis. This integrase may became a valuable tool for genetic manipulation of those organisms. Because the [var phi]C31 integrase requires no cofactors, it is expected to work well in a broad range of species, including plants, mammals, and other vertebrates and invertebrates, such as insects and worms. Indeed, it is likely that endogenous sites exist for many recombinases. We have documented the occurrence of pseudo loxP sites for Cre in mammalian cells (25), and it appears that these sites can be used in vivo in mice, at least under conditions of continuous high-level expression of Cre (19).

In human and mouse cell lines in which we inserted a wild-type attP site, the randomly placed attP sites competed with the set of native pseudo attP sites. From a sample of 96 colonies from four human cell lines carrying attP, we found that about 15% of the integrations occurred at the inserted attP site, compared to 5% at the predominant human ψA pseudo attP site. Most of the other integrations were expected to be distributed over the other ~100 pseudo attP sites. The integration frequency at a given attP site is presumably the result of the DNA sequence of the site and its chromosomal context, which may influence gene expression and integrase access. It will be interesting to measure the relative integration frequency at attP and human ψA when the chromosomal context of both sites is kept constant. We did not observe any multiple integrations in the same cell in this study, but we are not in a position to rule it out.

We have found that integration of a plasmid bearing attB into a chromosomally placed attP site is invariably precise, yielding the expected recombination event at the DNA sequence level. This precision reflects effective operation of the enzyme at its attB and attP recognition sites in many different contexts in mammalian chromosomes. Integration at the pseudo attP sites is, in contrast, slightly imprecise at the sequence level, presumably reflecting a less exact reaction when one of the att sites differs from the wild-type sequence. This result is expected from what is known of the interactions between the [var phi]C31 integrase and its att recognition sites (24). The sequence of the att site seems to influence the nature of the complex formed, which in turn determines whether or not the reaction will proceed. It is conceivable that with imperfect sites, mammalian repair enzymes may participate in completing the reaction. We observed that when the incoming plasmid bore an attP site instead of an attB site, we detected less-efficient reactions, both with pseudo attB sites or with an inserted attB site. We do not have an explanation for this lack of symmetry. It may reflect the order of formation of the complex and the ability of a complex to form on att sites located on abundant and exposed incoming plasmid DNA versus att sites buried in the chromosomes.

The reaction involving integration of a vector bearing attB into a wild-type attP site previously inserted in the genome has many applications in genetics and biotechnology, such as positioning incoming genes at the same integration site repeatedly in a given cell line. If a selection scheme is employed, such as the zeocin selection used here, then close to 100% of the selected events will be precisely positioned at the chromosomal attP site. For species that possess endogenous sequences that are recognized at appreciable frequencies by the [var phi]C31 integrase, integration into unmodified genomes is also feasible. This reaction may be valuable in in vivo gene therapy and other applications involving unmodified cells and tissues. This integration reaction would be more valuable if it occurred at an even higher frequency and if the number of target sites were more limited. More stringent target sequence requirements may be characteristic of related integrases found in nature. Additionally, it may be possible to increase enzyme efficiency and change target specificity by directed evolution (21).


Bhaskar Thyagarajan and Eric C. Olivares contributed equally to this work.

We thank Eddie Baba and Andrew Neviaser for technical support and Man-Wah Tan for comments on the manuscript.

National Institutes of Health grants DK55569 and DK58187 provided support to the Calos lab. E.C.O. was supported by a graduate fellowship from the Ford Foundation, D.G. was supported by a graduate training grant from the NIH, and B.T. was partially supported by PHS grant CA09302 from the National Cancer Institute.


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