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1.  Rapid Mutation of Endogenous Zebrafish Genes Using Zinc Finger Nucleases Made by Oligomerized Pool ENgineering (OPEN) 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(2):e4348.
Customized zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) form the basis of a broadly applicable tool for highly efficient genome modification. ZFNs are artificial restriction endonucleases consisting of a non-specific nuclease domain fused to a zinc finger array which can be engineered to recognize specific DNA sequences of interest. Recent proof-of-principle experiments have shown that targeted knockout mutations can be efficiently generated in endogenous zebrafish genes via non-homologous end-joining-mediated repair of ZFN-induced DNA double-stranded breaks. The Zinc Finger Consortium, a group of academic laboratories committed to the development of engineered zinc finger technology, recently described the first rapid, highly effective, and publicly available method for engineering zinc finger arrays. The Consortium has previously used this new method (known as OPEN for Oligomerized Pool ENgineering) to generate high quality ZFN pairs that function in human and plant cells.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Here we show that OPEN can also be used to generate ZFNs that function efficiently in zebrafish. Using OPEN, we successfully engineered ZFN pairs for five endogenous zebrafish genes: tfr2, dopamine transporter, telomerase, hif1aa, and gridlock. Each of these ZFN pairs induces targeted insertions and deletions with high efficiency at its endogenous gene target in somatic zebrafish cells. In addition, these mutations are transmitted through the germline with sufficiently high frequency such that only a small number of fish need to be screened to identify founders. Finally, in silico analysis demonstrates that one or more potential OPEN ZFN sites can be found within the first three coding exons of more than 25,000 different endogenous zebrafish gene transcripts.
Conclusions and Significance
In summary, our study nearly triples the total number of endogenous zebrafish genes successfully modified using ZFNs (from three to eight) and suggests that OPEN provides a reliable method for introducing targeted mutations in nearly any zebrafish gene of interest.
PMCID: PMC2634973  PMID: 19198653
2.  Creating Designed Zinc Finger Nucleases with Minimal Cytotoxicity 
Journal of molecular biology  2010;405(3):630-641.
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) have emerged as powerful tools for delivering a targeted genomic double-strand break (DSB) to either stimulate local homologous recombination (HR) with investigator-provided donor DNA or induce gene mutations at the site of cleavage in absence of a donor by non-homologous end joining (NHEJ), both in plant and mammalian cells, including human cells. ZFNs are formed by fusing zinc finger proteins (ZFPs) to the non-specific cleavage domain of FokI restriction enzyme. ZFN-mediated gene targeting yields high gene modification efficiencies (>10%), in a variety of cells and cell types by delivering a recombinogenic DSB to the targeted chromosomal locus, using two designed ZFNs. Mechanism of DSB by ZFNs requires that two ZFN monomers bind to their adjacent cognate sites on DNA and the FokI nuclease domains dimerize to form the active catalytic center for the induction of the DSB. In the case of ZFNs fused to wild-type FokI cleavage domains, homodimers may also form, which could limit the efficacy and safety of the ZFNs by inducing off-target cleavage. In this article, we report further refinements to obligate heterodimer variants of FokI cleavage domain for creating custom ZFNs with minimal cellular toxicity. The efficacy and efficiency of the re-engineered obligate heterodimer variants of FokI cleavage domain were tested using the GFP gene targeting reporter system. The 3- and 4-finger ZFP fusions to REL_DKK pair among the newly generated FokI nuclease domain variants appear to eliminate or greatly reduce the toxicity of designer ZFNs to human cells.
PMCID: PMC3017627  PMID: 21094162
3.  Attenuation of Zinc Finger Nuclease Toxicity by Small-Molecule Regulation of Protein Levels 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(2):e1000376.
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) have been used successfully to create genome-specific double-strand breaks and thereby stimulate gene targeting by several thousand fold. ZFNs are chimeric proteins composed of a specific DNA-binding domain linked to a non-specific DNA-cleavage domain. By changing key residues in the recognition helix of the specific DNA-binding domain, one can alter the ZFN binding specificity and thereby change the sequence to which a ZFN pair is being targeted. For these and other reasons, ZFNs are being pursued as reagents for genome modification, including use in gene therapy. In order for ZFNs to reach their full potential, it is important to attenuate the cytotoxic effects currently associated with many ZFNs. Here, we evaluate two potential strategies for reducing toxicity by regulating protein levels. Both strategies involve creating ZFNs with shortened half-lives and then regulating protein level with small molecules. First, we destabilize ZFNs by linking a ubiquitin moiety to the N-terminus and regulate ZFN levels using a proteasome inhibitor. Second, we destabilize ZFNs by linking a modified destabilizing FKBP12 domain to the N-terminus and regulate ZFN levels by using a small molecule that blocks the destabilization effect of the N-terminal domain. We show that by regulating protein levels, we can maintain high rates of ZFN-mediated gene targeting while reducing ZFN toxicity.
Author Summary
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) are a powerful tool to create site-specific genomic modifications in a wide variety of cell types and organisms and are about to enter human gene therapy clinical trials. An important aspect of using ZFNs for use in gene therapy is to minimize off-target effects. We made ZFNs that contain destabilizing domains on their amino-terminus. The expression level of the modified ZFNs could be increased transiently by the addition of a small molecule, either a proteasome inhibitor or Shield1. We demonstrate that off-target effects can be reduced without compromising gene targeting efficiency by using small molecules to limit the maximal expression of the ZFNs to a narrow window. The ability to regulate ZFN expression using small molecules provides a new strategy to minimizing off-target effects of ZFNs and may be an important way of ultimately using ZFNs for clinical use in gene therapy protocols.
PMCID: PMC2633050  PMID: 19214211
4.  ZFN-Site searches genomes for zinc finger nuclease target sites and off-target sites 
BMC Bioinformatics  2011;12:152.
Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) are man-made restriction enzymes useful for manipulating genomes by cleaving target DNA sequences. ZFNs allow therapeutic gene correction or creation of genetically modified model organisms. ZFN specificity is not absolute; therefore, it is essential to select ZFN target sites without similar genomic off-target sites. It is important to assay for off-target cleavage events at sites similar to the target sequence.
ZFN-Site is a web interface that searches multiple genomes for ZFN off-target sites. Queries can be based on the target sequence or can be expanded using degenerate specificity to account for known ZFN binding preferences. ZFN off-target sites are outputted with links to genome browsers, facilitating off-target cleavage site screening. We verified ZFN-Site using previously published ZFN half-sites and located their target sites and their previously described off-target sites. While we have tailored this tool to ZFNs, ZFN-Site can also be used to find potential off-target sites for other nucleases, such as TALE nucleases.
ZFN-Site facilitates genome searches for possible ZFN cleavage sites based on user-defined stringency limits. ZFN-Site is an improvement over other methods because the FetchGWI search engine uses an indexed search of genome sequences for all ZFN target sites and possible off-target sites matching the half-sites and stringency limits. Therefore, ZFN-Site does not miss potential off-target sites.
PMCID: PMC3113941  PMID: 21569489
5.  Stability of Zinc Finger Nuclease Protein Is Enhanced by the Proteasome Inhibitor MG132 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(1):e54282.
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) are powerful tools for gene therapy and genetic engineering. The characterization of ZFN protein stability and the development of simple methods to improve ZFN function would facilitate the application of this promising technology. However, the factors that affect ZFN protein stability and function are not yet clear. Here, we determined the stability and half-life of two ZFN proteins and examined the effect of MG132 (carbobenzoxyl-leucinyl-leucinyl-leucinal-Hl), a proteasome inhibitor, on ZFN-mediated gene modifications.
Methodology/Principal Findings
ZFN proteins were expressed in 293T cells after transfection of ZFN-encoding plasmids. We studied two ZFN pairs: Z-224, which targets the CCR5 gene, and K-230, which targets a region 230 kbp upstream of CCR5. Western blotting after treatment with cycloheximide showed that the half-life of these ZFN proteins was around two hours. An immunoprecipitation assay revealed that the ZFN interacts with ubiquitin molecules and undergoes polyubiquitination in vivo. Western blotting showed that the addition of MG132, a proteasomal inhibitor, increased ZFN protein levels. Finally, a surrogate reporter assay and a T7E1 assay revealed that MG132 treatment enhanced ZFN-directed gene editing.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate ZFN protein stability and to show that a small molecule can increase ZFN activity. Our protein stability study should lay the foundation for further improvement of ZFN technology; as a first step, the use of the small molecule MG132 can enhance the efficiency of ZFN-mediated gene editing.
PMCID: PMC3554775  PMID: 23365657
6.  Rescue the Failed Half-ZFN by a Sensitive Mammalian Cell-Based Luciferase Reporter System 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e45169.
ZFN technology is a powerful research tool and has been used for genome editing in cells lines, animals and plants. The generation of functional ZFNs for particular targets in mammalian genome is still challenging for an average research group. The modular-assembly method is relatively fast, easy-to-practice but has a high failure rate. Some recent studies suggested that a ZFP with low binding activity might be able to form a working ZFN pair with another binding active half-ZFP. In order to unveil the potential ZFP candidates among those with low binding activities, this paper established a highly sensitive mammalian cell-based transcriptional reporter system to assess the DNA binding activities of ZFPs by inserting multiple copies of ZFN target sequence fragment (TSF) of an interested gene (e. g., hPGRN or hVEGF). Our results showed that this system increased the screening sensitivity up to 50-fold and markedly amplified the differences in the binding activities between different ZFPs. We also found that the targeted chromosomal gene repair efficiency of each hPGRN or hVEGF ZFN pair was in proportion with the combination of the binding activities of the ZFL (Left zinc finger) and ZFR (Right zinc finger). A hPGRN ZFR with low binding ability was able to form a biological active ZFN if combined with a hPGRN ZFL with relatively high binding ability. Lastly, site-specific genome editing by hPGRN ZFNs generated by this system was confirmed by sequencing, and the PGRN knock-out cell line showed significantly decreased cell growth compared with the control. Our system will provide a valuable tool for further optimizing the nucleases with regard to specificity and cytotoxicity.
PMCID: PMC3445457  PMID: 23028823
7.  ZFNGenome: A comprehensive resource for locating zinc finger nuclease target sites in model organisms 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:83.
Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) have tremendous potential as tools to facilitate genomic modifications, such as precise gene knockouts or gene replacements by homologous recombination. ZFNs can be used to advance both basic research and clinical applications, including gene therapy. Recently, the ability to engineer ZFNs that target any desired genomic DNA sequence with high fidelity has improved significantly with the introduction of rapid, robust, and publicly available techniques for ZFN design such as the Oligomerized Pool ENgineering (OPEN) method. The motivation for this study is to make resources for genome modifications using OPEN-generated ZFNs more accessible to researchers by creating a user-friendly interface that identifies and provides quality scores for all potential ZFN target sites in the complete genomes of several model organisms.
ZFNGenome is a GBrowse-based tool for identifying and visualizing potential target sites for OPEN-generated ZFNs. ZFNGenome currently includes a total of more than 11.6 million potential ZFN target sites, mapped within the fully sequenced genomes of seven model organisms; S. cerevisiae, C. reinhardtii, A. thaliana, D. melanogaster, D. rerio, C. elegans, and H. sapiens and can be visualized within the flexible GBrowse environment. Additional model organisms will be included in future updates. ZFNGenome provides information about each potential ZFN target site, including its chromosomal location and position relative to transcription initiation site(s). Users can query ZFNGenome using several different criteria (e.g., gene ID, transcript ID, target site sequence). Tracks in ZFNGenome also provide "uniqueness" and ZiFOpT (Zinc Finger OPEN Targeter) "confidence" scores that estimate the likelihood that a chosen ZFN target site will function in vivo. ZFNGenome is dynamically linked to ZiFDB, allowing users access to all available information about zinc finger reagents, such as the effectiveness of a given ZFN in creating double-stranded breaks.
ZFNGenome provides a user-friendly interface that allows researchers to access resources and information regarding genomic target sites for engineered ZFNs in seven model organisms. This genome-wide database of potential ZFN target sites should greatly facilitate the utilization of ZFNs in both basic and clinical research.
ZFNGenome is freely available at: or at the Zinc Finger Consortium website:
PMCID: PMC3042413  PMID: 21276248
8.  Zinc Finger Nucleases: A new era for transgenic animals 
Annals of Neurosciences  2011;18(1):25-28.
The rational engineering of eukaryotic genomes would facilitate the study of heritable changes in gene expression and offer enormous potential across basic research, drug-discovery, bioproduction and therapeutic development. A significant advancement toward this objective was achieved with the advent of a novel technology that enables high-frequency and high-fidelity genome editing via the application of custom designed zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs). A ZFN is a chimeric protein that consists of the non-specific endonuclease domain of FokI fused to a DNA-binding domain composed of an engineered zinc-finger motif. Within these chimeric proteins, the DNA binding specificity of the zinc finger protein determines the site of nuclease action. Once the engineered ZFNs recognize and bind to their specified locus, it leads to the dimerization of the two nuclease domains on the ZFNs to evoke a double-strand break (DSB) in the targeted DNA. The cell then employs the natural DNA repair processes of either non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) or homology-directed repair (HDR) to repair the targeted break. Due to the imperfect fidelity of NHEJ, a proportion of DSBs within a ZFN-treated cellular population will be misrepaired, leading to cells in which variable heterogeneous genetic insertions or deletions have been made at the target site. Alternatively, the HDR repair pathway enables precise insertion of a transgene or other defined alterations into the targeted region. By this approach, a donor template containing the transgene flanked by sequences that are homologous to the regions either side of the cleavage site is co-delivered into the cell along with the ZFNs. By creating a specific DSB, these cellular repair mechanisms are harnessed to generate precisely targeted genomic edits resulting in both cell lines and animal models with targeted gene deletions, integrations, or modifications. This review will discuss the development, mechanism of action, and applications of ZFN technology to genome engineering and the creation of animal models.
PMCID: PMC4117018  PMID: 25205916
Zinc Finger Nuclease; DNA Repair; Non-homologous End Joining; Homologous Recombination; Cell Lines; Animal Models
9.  Custom-designed zinc finger nucleases: What is next? 
Custom-designed zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) – proteins designed to cut at specific DNA sequences – combine the non-specific cleavage domain (N) of Fok I restriction endonuclease with zinc finger proteins (ZFPs). Because the recognition specificities of the ZFPs can be easily manipulated experimentally, ZFNs offer a general way to deliver a targeted site-specific double-strand break (DSB) to the genome. They have become powerful tools for enhancing gene targeting – the process of replacing a gene within a genome of cells via homologous recombination (HR) – by several orders of magnitude. ZFN-mediated gene targeting thus confers molecular biologists with the ability to site-specifically and permanently alter not only plant and mammalian genomes but also many other organisms by stimulating HR via a targeted genomic DSB. Site-specific engineering of the plant and mammalian genome in cells so far has been hindered by the low frequency of HR. In ZFN-mediated gene targeting, this is circumvented by using designer ZFNs to cut at the desired chromosomal locus inside the cells. The DNA break is then patched up using the new investigator-provided genetic information and the cells’ own repair machinery. The accuracy and high efficiency of the HR process combined with the ability to design ZFNs that target most DNA sequences (if not all) makes ZFN technology not only a powerful research tool for site-specific manipulation of the plant and mammalian genomes, but also potentially for human therapeutics in the future, in particular for targeted engineering of the human genome of clinically transplantable stem cells.
PMCID: PMC2921987  PMID: 17763826
Zinc finger nucleases; gene targeting; genome engineering; site-specific modification; targeted mutagenesis; gene correction; homologous recombination; non-homologous end-joining
10.  Zinc finger nucleases: custom-designed molecular scissors for genome engineering of plant and mammalian cells 
Nucleic Acids Research  2005;33(18):5978-5990.
Custom-designed zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), proteins designed to cut at specific DNA sequences, are becoming powerful tools in gene targeting—the process of replacing a gene within a genome by homologous recombination (HR). ZFNs that combine the non-specific cleavage domain (N) of FokI endonuclease with zinc finger proteins (ZFPs) offer a general way to deliver a site-specific double-strand break (DSB) to the genome. The development of ZFN-mediated gene targeting provides molecular biologists with the ability to site-specifically and permanently modify plant and mammalian genomes including the human genome via homology-directed repair of a targeted genomic DSB. The creation of designer ZFNs that cleave DNA at a pre-determined site depends on the reliable creation of ZFPs that can specifically recognize the chosen target site within a genome. The (Cys2His2) ZFPs offer the best framework for developing custom ZFN molecules with new sequence-specificities. Here, we explore the different approaches for generating the desired custom ZFNs with high sequence-specificity and affinity. We also discuss the potential of ZFN-mediated gene targeting for ‘directed mutagenesis’ and targeted ‘gene editing’ of the plant and mammalian genome as well as the potential of ZFN-based strategies as a form of gene therapy for human therapeutics in the future.
PMCID: PMC1270952  PMID: 16251401
11.  Directed evolution of an enhanced and highly efficient FokI cleavage domain for Zinc Finger Nucleases 
Journal of molecular biology  2010;400(1):96-107.
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) are powerful tools for gene therapy and genetic engineering. The high specificity and affinity of these chimeric enzymes are based on custom-designed zinc finger proteins (ZFPs). In order to improve the performance of existing ZFN technology, we developed an in vivo evolution-based approach to improve the efficacy of the FokI cleavage domain (FCD). After multiple rounds of cycling mutagenesis and DNA shuffling, a more efficient nuclease variant (Sharkey) was generated. In vivo analyses indicated that Sharkey is >15-fold more active than wild-type FCD on a diverse panel of cleavage sites. Further, a mammalian cell-based assay showed a 3 to 6-fold improvement in targeted mutagenesis for ZFNs containing derivatives of the Sharkey cleavage domain. We also identified mutations that impart sequence specificity to the FCD that might be utilized in future studies to further refine ZFNs through cooperative specificity. In addition, Sharkey was observed to enhance the cleavage profiles of previously published and newly selected heterodimer ZFN architectures. This enhanced and highly efficient cleavage domain will aid in a variety of ZFN applications in medicine and biology.
PMCID: PMC2885538  PMID: 20447404
zinc finger nuclease; directed evolution; gene targeting
12.  Versatile and Efficient Genome Editing in Human Cells by Combining Zinc-Finger Nucleases With Adeno-Associated Viral Vectors 
Human Gene Therapy  2011;23(3):321-329.
Zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) have become a valuable tool for targeted genome engineering. Based on the enzyme's ability to create a site-specific DNA double-strand break, ZFNs promote genome editing by activating the cellular DNA damage response, including homology-directed repair (HDR) and nonhomologous end-joining. The goal of this study was (i) to demonstrate the versatility of combining the ZFN technology with a vector platform based on adeno-associated virus (AAV), and (ii) to assess the toxicity evoked by this platform. To this end, human cell lines that harbor enhanced green fluorescence protein (EGFP) reporters were generated to easily quantify the frequencies of gene deletion, gene disruption, and gene correction. We demonstrated that ZFN-encoding AAV expression vectors can be employed to induce large chromosomal deletions or to disrupt genes in up to 32% of transduced cells. In combination with AAV vectors that served as HDR donors, the AAV-ZFN platform was utilized to correct a mutation in EGFP in up to 6% of cells. Genome editing on the DNA level was confirmed by genotyping. Although cell cycle profiling revealed a modest G2/M arrest at high AAV-ZFN vector doses, platform-induced apoptosis could not be detected. In conclusion, the combined AAV-ZFN vector technology is a useful tool to edit the human genome with high efficiency. Because AAV vectors can transduce many cell types relevant for gene therapy, the ex vivo and in vivo delivery of ZFNs via AAV vectors will be of great interest for the treatment of inherited disorders.
Händel and colleagues characterize the genome-editing ability and toxicity of adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors encoding zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs). ZFN-encoding AAV vectors induce large chromosomal deletions and disrupt genes in up to 32% of transduced cells harboring an enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) reporter gene, and can correct an EGFP mutation in up to 6% of cells when combined with AAV vectors serving as homology-directed repair donors. No cellular apoptosis was detected.
PMCID: PMC3300077  PMID: 21980922
13.  Synthetic Zinc Finger Nuclease Design and Rapid Assembly 
Human Gene Therapy  2011;22(9):1155-1165.
Engineered zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) are a tool for genome manipulation that are of great interest to scientists in many fields. To meet the needs of researchers wishing to employ ZFNs, an inexpensive, rapid assembly procedure would be beneficial to laboratories that do not have access to the proprietary reagents often required for ZFN production. Using freely available sequence data derived from the Zinc Finger Targeter database, we developed a protocol for synthesis and directed insertion of user-defined ZFNs into a versatile plasmid expression system. This oligonucleotide-based isothermal DNA assembly protocol was used to determine whether we could generate functional nucleases capable of endogenous gene editing. We targeted the human α-l-iduronidase (IDUA) gene on chromosome 4, mutations of which result in the severe lysosomal storage disease mucopolysaccharidosis type I. In approximately 1 week we were able to design, assemble, and test six IDUA-specific ZFNs. In a single-stranded annealing assay five of the six candidates we tested performed at a level comparable to or surpassing previously reported ZFNs. One of the five subsequently showed nuclease activity at the endogenous genomic IDUA locus. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of in silico-designed, oligonucleotide-assembled, synthetic ZFNs, requiring no specialized templates or reagents that are capable of endogenous human gene target site activity. This method, termed CoDA-syn (context-dependent assembly-synthetic), should facilitate a more widespread use of ZFNs in the research community.
Osborn and colleagues report development of a protocol for synthesis and direct insertion of user-defined zinc finger nucleases (ZFN) into versatile expression systems. ZFNs targeting the human α-L-iduronidase (IDUA) gene designed in this manner performed comparably to previously reported ZFNs. This method, termed CoDA-syn (Context Dependent Assembly-synthetic), should facilitate a more widespread utilization of ZFNs in the research community.
PMCID: PMC4076977  PMID: 21663559
14.  Analysis of illegitimate genomic integration mediated by zinc-finger nucleases: implications for specificity of targeted gene correction 
BMC Molecular Biology  2010;11:35.
Formation of site specific genomic double strand breaks (DSBs), induced by the expression of a pair of engineered zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs), dramatically increases the rates of homologous recombination (HR) between a specific genomic target and a donor plasmid. However, for the safe use of ZFN induced HR in practical applications, possible adverse effects of the technology such as cytotoxicity and genotoxicity need to be well understood. In this work, off-target activity of a pair of ZFNs has been examined by measuring the ratio between HR and illegitimate genomic integration in cells that are growing exponentially, and in cells that have been arrested in the G2/M phase.
A reporter cell line that contained consensus ZFN binding sites in an enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) reporter gene was used to measure ratios between HR and non-homologous integration of a plasmid template. Both in human cells (HEK 293) containing the consensus ZFN binding sites and in cells lacking the ZFN binding sites, a 3.5 fold increase in the level of illegitimate integration was observed upon ZFN expression. Since the reporter gene containing the consensus ZFN target sites was found to be intact in cells where illegitimate integration had occurred, increased rates of illegitimate integration most likely resulted from the formation of off-target genomic DSBs. Additionally, in a fraction of the ZFN treated cells the co-occurrence of both specific HR and illegitimate integration was observed. As a mean to minimize unspecific effects, cell cycle manipulation of the target cells by induction of a transient G2/M cell cycle arrest was shown to stimulate the activity of HR while having little effect on the levels of illegitimate integration, thus resulting in a nearly eight fold increase in the ratio between the two processes.
The demonstration that ZFN expression, in addition to stimulating specific gene targeting by HR, leads to increased rates of illegitimate integration emphasizes the importance of careful characterization of ZFN treated cells. In order to reduce off-target events, reversible cell cycle arrest of the target cells in the G2/M phase is an efficient way for increasing the ratio between specific HR and illegitimate integration.
PMCID: PMC2875229  PMID: 20459736
15.  Engineered Zinc Finger Nuclease–Mediated Homologous Recombination of the Human Rhodopsin Gene 
Zinc finger nuclease–mediated homologous recombination is examined as a permanent genetic approach to treat retinitis pigmentosa.
Novel zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) were designed to target the human rhodopsin gene and induce homologous recombination of a donor DNA fragment.
Three-finger zinc finger nucleases were designed based on previously published guidelines. To assay for ZFN specificity, the authors generated human embryonic retinoblast cell lines stably expressing a Pro23His rhodopsin, the most common mutation associated with autosomal dominant retinitis pigmentosa in North America. They report quantification of these rhodopsin-specific ZFNs to induce a targeted double-strand break in the human genome, demonstrate their ability to induce homologous recombination of a donor DNA fragment, and report the quantification of the frequency of ZFN-mediated homologous recombination.
Compared with endogenous homologous recombination, the authors observed a 12-fold increase in homologous recombination and an absolute frequency of ZFN-directed homologous recombination as high as 17% in the human rhodopsin gene.
ZFNs are chimeric proteins with significant potential for the treatment of inherited diseases. In this study, the authors report the design of novel ZFNs targeting the human rhodopsin gene. These ZFNs may be useful for the treatment of retinal diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, one of the most common causes of inherited blindness in the developed world. Herein, they also report on several aspects of donor fragment design and in vitro conditions that facilitate ZFN-mediated homologous recombination.
PMCID: PMC3055761  PMID: 20671268
16.  Custom-Designed Molecular Scissors for Site-Specific Manipulation of the Plant and Mammalian Genomes 
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) are custom-designed molecular scissors, engineered to cut at specific DNA sequences. ZFNs combine the zinc finger proteins (ZFPs) with the nonspecific cleavage domain of the FokI restriction enzyme. The DNA-binding specificity of ZFNs can be easily altered experimentally. This easy manipulation of the ZFN recognition specificity enables one to deliver a targeted double-strand break (DSB) to a genome. The targeted DSB stimulates local gene targeting by several orders of magnitude at that specific cut site via homologous recombination (HR). Thus, ZFNs have become an important experimental tool to make site-specific and permanent alterations to genomes of not only plants and mammals but also of many other organisms. Engineering of custom ZFNs involves many steps. The first step is to identify a ZFN site at or near the chosen chromosomal target within the genome to which ZFNs will bind and cut. The second step is to design and/or select various ZFP combinations that will bind to the chosen target site with high specificity and affinity. The DNA coding sequence for the designed ZFPs are then assembled by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) using oligonucleotides. The third step is to fuse the ZFP constructs to the FokI cleavage domain. The ZFNs are then expressed as proteins by using the rabbit reticulocyte in vitro transcription/translation system and the protein products assayed for their DNA cleavage specificity.
PMCID: PMC2921164  PMID: 19488728
Gene therapy; Nonviral vectors; Zinc finger nucleases; Gene targeting; Genome engineering; Site-specific modification; Targeted mutagenesis; Gene correction; Homologous recombination; Nonhomologous end joining
17.  Simultaneous Screening and Validation of Effective Zinc Finger Nucleases in Yeast 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(5):e64687.
Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) have been successfully used for genome modification in various cell types and species. However, construction of an effective ZFN remained challenging. Previous studies all focused on obtaining specific zinc finger proteins (ZFPs) first via bacterial 2-hybrid approach, and then fusing selected ZFPs to FokI nuclease domain. These assembled ZFNs have high rate of failing to cleave target sites in vivo. In this study, we developed a simultaneous screening and validation system to obtain effective ZFNs directly in yeast AH109. This system is based on Gal4 reporter system carrying a unique intermediate reporter plasmid with two 30-bp Gal4 homology arms and a ZFN target site. DNA double strand breaks introduced on target sequence by ZFNs were repaired by single strand annealing (SSA) mechanism, and the restored Gal4 drove reporter genes expression. Taking the advantage of OPEN (Oligomerized Pool ENgineering) selection, we constructed 3 randomized ZFNs libraries and 9 reporter strains for each target gene. We tested this system by taking goat α s1-casein as target gene following three-step selection. Consequently, 3 efficient pairs of ZFNs were obtained from positive colonies on selective medium. The ZFNs achieved a 15.9% disruption frequency in goat mammary epithelial cells. In conclusion, we created a novel system to obtain effective ZFNs directly with simultaneous screening and validation.
PMCID: PMC3669427  PMID: 23741369
18.  Targeted genome editing by lentiviral protein transduction of zinc-finger and TAL-effector nucleases 
eLife  2014;3:e01911.
Future therapeutic use of engineered site-directed nucleases, like zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) and transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), relies on safe and effective means of delivering nucleases to cells. In this study, we adapt lentiviral vectors as carriers of designer nuclease proteins, providing efficient targeted gene disruption in vector-treated cell lines and primary cells. By co-packaging pairs of ZFN proteins with donor RNA in ‘all-in-one’ lentiviral particles, we co-deliver ZFN proteins and the donor template for homology-directed repair leading to targeted DNA insertion and gene correction. Comparative studies of ZFN activity in a predetermined target locus and a known nearby off-target locus demonstrate reduced off-target activity after ZFN protein transduction relative to conventional delivery approaches. Additionally, TALEN proteins are added to the repertoire of custom-designed nucleases that can be delivered by protein transduction. Altogether, our findings generate a new platform for genome engineering based on efficient and potentially safer delivery of programmable nucleases.
eLife digest
Altering the genetic code of a living organism to produce certain desirable outcomes is the goal of genetic engineering. The field builds on a long history of human attempts to alter genetics, from selective breeding of crops and livestock to genetically modified organisms and gene therapies. Researchers routinely use gene editing to create ‘knock-out’ mice in which a particular gene is turned off: the researchers can learn more about the function of this gene by watching what happens when it is absent.
As gene editing techniques have grown more sophisticated, they have become an increasingly promising tool for treating diseases that are caused by gene mutations. The aim of this work is to replace faulty genes with genes that work properly. However, it has been difficult to adapt genetic engineering techniques so that they can be used safely in humans.
Scientists have created customized enzymes called nucleases that can remove specific genes, but it has been a challenge to get these nucleases into cells in the first place. A virus can be used to deliver the genes that encode these nucleases into the DNA of a cell, but this approach can lead to the production of too many nucleases and to the removal of more genes than intended.
Now Cai et al. have developed a ‘hit-and-run’ method for getting the nucleases into cells and making them active only for a short period of time. This method involves using a virus to deliver two different nucleases to a cell. Once inside the cell, the viruses released the nucleases, which were able to remove up to one-quarter of their gene targets, with relatively few errors, in the time that they were active.
Next, Cai et al. added gene patches—new genes to replace those removed by the nucleases—to the viruses. This ‘cut and patch’ strategy was successful in up to 8% of the treated cells. The results also suggest that this approach is safer than other gene-editing techniques.
PMCID: PMC3996624  PMID: 24843011
protein transduction; zinc-finger nucleases; transcription activator-like effector nucleases; lentiviral vector; Gag; human; viruses
19.  Cytotoxic Effects during Knock Out of Multiple Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV) Sequences in the Pig Genome by Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFN) 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(4):e0122059.
Xenotransplantation has been proposed as a solution to the shortage of suitable human donors for transplantation and pigs are currently favoured as donor animals. However, xenotransplantation may be associated with the transmission of zoonotic microorganisms. Whereas most porcine microorganisms representing a risk for the human recipient may be eliminated by designated pathogen free breeding, multiple copies of porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) are integrated in the genome of all pigs and cannot be eliminated this way. PERVs are released as infectious particles and infect human cells. The zinc finger nuclease (ZFN) technology allows knocking out specifically cellular genes, however it was not yet used to eliminate multiple integrated proviral sequences with a strong conservation in the target sequence. To reduce the risk of horizontal PERV transmission and to knock out as many as possible proviruses, for the first time the powerful tool of the ZFN technology was used. ZFN were designed to bind specifically to sequences conserved in all known replication-competent proviruses. Expression and transport of the ZFN into the nucleus was shown by Western blot analysis, co-localisation analysis, PLA and FRET. Survival of transfected cells was analysed using fluorescent ZFN and cell counting. After transfection a strong expression of the ZFN proteins and a co-localisation of the expressed ZFN proteins were shown. However, expression of the ZFN was found to be extremely toxic for the transfected cells. The induced cytotoxicity was likely due to the specific cutting of the high copy number of the PERV proviruses, which is also commonly observed when ZFN with low specificity cleave numerous off-target sites in a genome. This is the first attempt to knock out multiple, nearly identical, genes in a cellular genome using ZFN. The attempt failed, and other strategies should be used to prevent PERV transmission.
PMCID: PMC4409370  PMID: 25909512
20.  Selection-Independent Generation of Gene Knockout Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells Using Zinc-Finger Nucleases 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(12):e28911.
Gene knockout in murine embryonic stem cells (ESCs) has been an invaluable tool to study gene function in vitro or to generate animal models with altered phenotypes. Gene targeting using standard techniques, however, is rather inefficient and typically does not exceed frequencies of 10−6. In consequence, the usage of complex positive/negative selection strategies to isolate targeted clones has been necessary. Here, we present a rapid single-step approach to generate a gene knockout in mouse ESCs using engineered zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs). Upon transient expression of ZFNs, the target gene is cleaved by the designer nucleases and then repaired by non-homologous end-joining, an error-prone DNA repair process that introduces insertions/deletions at the break site and therefore leads to functional null mutations. To explore and quantify the potential of ZFNs to generate a gene knockout in pluripotent stem cells, we generated a mouse ESC line containing an X-chromosomally integrated EGFP marker gene. Applying optimized conditions, the EGFP locus was disrupted in up to 8% of ESCs after transfection of the ZFN expression vectors, thus obviating the need of selection markers to identify targeted cells, which may impede or complicate downstream applications. Both activity and ZFN-associated cytotoxicity was dependent on vector dose and the architecture of the nuclease domain. Importantly, teratoma formation assays of selected ESC clones confirmed that ZFN-treated ESCs maintained pluripotency. In conclusion, the described ZFN-based approach represents a fast strategy for generating gene knockouts in ESCs in a selection-independent fashion that should be easily transferrable to other pluripotent stem cells.
PMCID: PMC3237556  PMID: 22194948
21.  Targeted gene inactivation in zebrafish using engineered zinc finger nucleases 
Nature biotechnology  2008;26(6):695-701.
In most vertebrate model systems direct genomic manipulation at a specific locus is still not feasible. Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) provide a system to introduce genomic lesions at a specific site in vertebrate cell lines1-3. Here, we adapt this technology to create targeted mutations in the zebrafish germline in vivo. ZFNs were engineered that recognize sequences in the zebrafish ortholog of the vascular endothelial growth factor-2 receptor, kdra. Co-injection of mRNAs encoding these ZFNs into 1-cell stage zebrafish embryos led to mutagenic lesions at the target site that were transmitted through the germline with high frequency. Thus, engineered ZFNs can introduce heritable mutations into a vertebrate genome. Importantly, this in vivo gene inactivation approach obviates the need for embryonic stem cell lines and will be applicable to most animal species, especially in cases where early stage embryos are easily accessible.
PMCID: PMC2502069  PMID: 18500337
22.  Improved Somatic Mutagenesis in Zebrafish Using Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e37877.
Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) made by Context-Dependent Assembly (CoDA) and Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) provide robust and user-friendly technologies for efficiently inactivating genes in zebrafish. These designer nucleases bind to and cleave DNA at particular target sites, inducing error-prone repair that can result in insertion or deletion mutations. Here, we assess the relative efficiencies of these technologies for inducing somatic DNA mutations in mosaic zebrafish. We find that TALENs exhibited a higher success rate for obtaining active nucleases capable of inducing mutations than compared with CoDA ZFNs. For example, all six TALENs tested induced DNA mutations at genomic target sites while only a subset of CoDA ZFNs exhibited detectable rates of mutagenesis. TALENs also exhibited higher mutation rates than CoDA ZFNs that had not been pre-screened using a bacterial two-hybrid assay, with DNA mutation rates ranging from 20%–76.8% compared to 1.1%–3.3%. Furthermore, the broader targeting range of TALENs enabled us to induce mutations at the methionine translation start site, sequences that were not targetable using the CoDA ZFN platform. TALENs exhibited similar toxicity to CoDA ZFNs, with >50% of injected animals surviving to 3 days of life. Taken together, our results suggest that TALEN technology provides a robust alternative to CoDA ZFNs for inducing targeted gene-inactivation in zebrafish, making it a preferred technology for creating targeted knockout mutants in zebrafish.
PMCID: PMC3360007  PMID: 22655075
23.  Autonomous zinc-finger nuclease pairs for targeted chromosomal deletion 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;38(22):8269-8276.
Zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) have been successfully used for rational genome engineering in a variety of cell types and organisms. ZFNs consist of a non-specific FokI endonuclease domain and a specific zinc-finger DNA-binding domain. Because the catalytic domain must dimerize to become active, two ZFN subunits are typically assembled at the cleavage site. The generation of obligate heterodimeric ZFNs was shown to significantly reduce ZFN-associated cytotoxicity in single-site genome editing strategies. To further expand the application range of ZFNs, we employed a combination of in silico protein modeling, in vitro cleavage assays, and in vivo recombination assays to identify autonomous ZFN pairs that lack cross-reactivity between each other. In the context of ZFNs designed to recognize two adjacent sites in the human HOXB13 locus, we demonstrate that two autonomous ZFN pairs can be directed simultaneously to two different sites to induce a chromosomal deletion in ∼10% of alleles. Notably, the autonomous ZFN pair induced a targeted chromosomal deletion with the same efficacy as previously published obligate heterodimeric ZFNs but with significantly less toxicity. These results demonstrate that autonomous ZFNs will prove useful in targeted genome engineering approaches wherever an application requires the expression of two distinct ZFN pairs.
PMCID: PMC3001086  PMID: 20716517
24.  AAV-Mediated Delivery of Zinc Finger Nucleases Targeting Hepatitis B Virus Inhibits Active Replication 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(5):e97579.
Despite an existing effective vaccine, hepatitis B virus (HBV) remains a major public health concern. There are effective suppressive therapies for HBV, but they remain expensive and inaccessible to many, and not all patients respond well. Furthermore, HBV can persist as genomic covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) that remains in hepatocytes even during otherwise effective therapy and facilitates rebound in patients after treatment has stopped. Therefore, the need for an effective treatment that targets active and persistent HBV infections remains. As a novel approach to treat HBV, we have targeted the HBV genome for disruption to prevent viral reactivation and replication. We generated 3 zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) that target sequences within the HBV polymerase, core and X genes. Upon the formation of ZFN-induced DNA double strand breaks (DSB), imprecise repair by non-homologous end joining leads to mutations that inactivate HBV genes. We delivered HBV-specific ZFNs using self-complementary adeno-associated virus (scAAV) vectors and tested their anti-HBV activity in HepAD38 cells. HBV-ZFNs efficiently disrupted HBV target sites by inducing site-specific mutations. Cytotoxicity was seen with one of the ZFNs. scAAV-mediated delivery of a ZFN targeting HBV polymerase resulted in complete inhibition of HBV DNA replication and production of infectious HBV virions in HepAD38 cells. This effect was sustained for at least 2 weeks following only a single treatment. Furthermore, high specificity was observed for all ZFNs, as negligible off-target cleavage was seen via high-throughput sequencing of 7 closely matched potential off-target sites. These results show that HBV-targeted ZFNs can efficiently inhibit active HBV replication and suppress the cellular template for HBV persistence, making them promising candidates for eradication therapy.
PMCID: PMC4020843  PMID: 24827459
25.  Zinc-Finger Nucleases for Somatic Gene Therapy: The Next Frontier 
Human Gene Therapy  2011;22(8):925-933.
Zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) are a powerful tool that can be used to edit the human genome ad libitum. The technology has experienced remarkable development in the last few years with regard to both the target site specificity and the engineering platforms used to generate zinc-finger proteins. As a result, two phase I clinical trials aimed at knocking out the CCR5 receptor in T cells isolated from HIV patients to protect these lymphocytes from infection with the virus have been initiated. Moreover, ZFNs have been successfully employed to knockout or correct disease-related genes in human stem cells, including hematopoietic precursor cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. Targeted genome engineering approaches in multipotent and pluripotent stem cells hold great promise for future strategies geared toward correcting inborn mutations for personalized cell replacement therapies. This review describes how ZFNs have been applied to models of gene therapy, discusses the opportunities and the risks associated with this novel technology, and suggests future directions for their safe application in therapeutic genome engineering.
Zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) are artificial nucleases that can be designed to specifically cleave DNA at a chosen target gene. In this review article, Rahman and colleagues describe how ZFNs have been applied to models of gene therapy, discuss the opportunities and risks associated with this novel technology, and suggest future directions for their safe application in therapeutic genome engineering.
PMCID: PMC3159524  PMID: 21631241

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