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1.  Characterization of the CRISPR/Cas Subtype I-A System of the Hyperthermophilic Crenarchaeon Thermoproteus tenax 
Journal of Bacteriology  2012;194(10):2491-2500.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) elements and cas (CRISPR-associated) genes are widespread in Bacteria and Archaea. The CRISPR/Cas system operates as a defense mechanism against mobile genetic elements (i.e., viruses or plasmids). Here, we investigate seven CRISPR loci in the genome of the crenarchaeon Thermoproteus tenax that include spacers with significant similarity not only to archaeal viruses but also to T. tenax genes. The analysis of CRISPR RNA (crRNA) transcription reveals transcripts of a length between 50 and 130 nucleotides, demonstrating the processing of larger crRNA precursors. The organization of identified cas genes resembles CRISPR/Cas subtype I-A, and the core cas genes are shown to be arranged on two polycistronic transcripts: cascis (cas4, cas1/2, and csa1) and cascade (csa5, cas7, cas5a, cas3, cas3′, and cas8a2). Changes in the environmental parameters such as UV-light exposure or high ionic strength modulate cas gene transcription. Two reconstitution protocols were established for the production of two discrete multipartite Cas protein complexes that correspond to their operonic gene arrangement. These data provide insights into the specialized mechanisms of an archaeal CRISPR/Cas system and allow selective functional analyses of Cas protein complexes in the future.
PMCID: PMC3347209  PMID: 22408157
2.  CRISPR/Cas systems in archaea 
Mobile Genetic Elements  2012;2(1):63-64.
CRISPR (Clustered, Regularly, Interspaced, Short, Palindromic Repeats) loci have been shown to provide prokaryotes with an adaptive immunity against viruses and plasmids. CRISPR arrays are transcribed and processed into small CRISPR RNA molecules, which base-pair with invading DNA or RNA and lead to its degradation by CRISPR-associated (Cas) protein complexes. New spacers can be acquired by active CRISPR/Cas systems, and thus the sequences of these spacers provide a record of the past “infection history” of the organism. Recently we used spacer sequences from archaeal genomes to infer gene exchange events among archaeal species and genera and to demonstrate that at least in this domain of life CRISPR indeed has an anti-viral role.
PMCID: PMC3383453  PMID: 22754756
CRISPR; Lateral Gene Transfer; archaea; horizontal gene transfer; viruses
3.  Transcription, Processing, and Function of CRISPR Cassettes in Escherichia coli 
Molecular microbiology  2010;77(6):1367-1379.
CRISPR/Cas, bacterial and archaeal systems of interference with foreign genetic elements such as viruses or plasmids, consist of DNA loci called CRISPR cassettes (a set of variable spacers regularly separated by palindromic repeats) and associated cas genes. When a CRISPR spacer sequence exactly matches a sequence in a viral genome, the cell can become resistant to the virus. The CRISPR/Cas systems function through small RNAs originating from longer CRISPR cassette transcripts. While laboratory strains of Escherichia coli contain a functional CRISPR/Cas system (as judged by appearance of phage resistance at conditions of artificial co-overexpression of Cas genes and a CRISPR cassette engineered to target a λ phage), no natural phage resistance due to CRISPR system function was observed in this best-studied organism and no E. coli CRISPR spacer matches sequences of well-studied E. coli phages. To better understand the apparently “silent” E. coli CRISPR/Cas system, we systematically characterized processed transcripts from CRISPR cassettes. Using an engineered strain with genomically located spacer matching phage λ we show that endogenous levels of CRISPR cassette and cas genes expression allow only weak protection against infection with the phage. However, derepression of the CRISPR/Cas system by disruption of the hns gene leads to high level of protection.
PMCID: PMC2939963  PMID: 20624226
4.  Substrate Generation for Endonucleases of CRISPR/Cas Systems 
The interaction of viruses and their prokaryotic hosts shaped the evolution of bacterial and archaeal life. Prokaryotes developed several strategies to evade viral attacks that include restriction modification, abortive infection and CRISPR/Cas systems. These adaptive immune systems found in many Bacteria and most Archaea consist of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) sequences and a number of CRISPR associated (Cas) genes (Fig. 1)1-3. Different sets of Cas proteins and repeats define at least three major divergent types of CRISPR/Cas systems 4. The universal proteins Cas1 and Cas2 are proposed to be involved in the uptake of viral DNA that will generate a new spacer element between two repeats at the 5' terminus of an extending CRISPR cluster 5. The entire cluster is transcribed into a precursor-crRNA containing all spacer and repeat sequences and is subsequently processed by an enzyme of the diverse Cas6 family into smaller crRNAs 6-8. These crRNAs consist of the spacer sequence flanked by a 5' terminal (8 nucleotides) and a 3' terminal tag derived from the repeat sequence 9. A repeated infection of the virus can now be blocked as the new crRNA will be directed by a Cas protein complex (Cascade) to the viral DNA and identify it as such via base complementarity10. Finally, for CRISPR/Cas type 1 systems, the nuclease Cas3 will destroy the detected invader DNA 11,12 .
These processes define CRISPR/Cas as an adaptive immune system of prokaryotes and opened a fascinating research field for the study of the involved Cas proteins. The function of many Cas proteins is still elusive and the causes for the apparent diversity of the CRISPR/Cas systems remain to be illuminated. Potential activities of most Cas proteins were predicted via detailed computational analyses. A major fraction of Cas proteins are either shown or proposed to function as endonucleases 4.
Here, we present methods to generate crRNAs and precursor-cRNAs for the study of Cas endoribonucleases. Different endonuclease assays require either short repeat sequences that can directly be synthesized as RNA oligonucleotides or longer crRNA and pre-crRNA sequences that are generated via in vitro T7 RNA polymerase run-off transcription. This methodology allows the incorporation of radioactive nucleotides for the generation of internally labeled endonuclease substrates and the creation of synthetic or mutant crRNAs. Cas6 endonuclease activity is utilized to mature pre-crRNAs into crRNAs with 5'-hydroxyl and a 2',3'-cyclic phosphate termini.
PMCID: PMC3490271  PMID: 22986408
Molecular biology; Issue 67; CRISPR/Cas; endonuclease;  in vitro transcription; crRNA; Cas6
5.  CRISPR-mediated defense mechanisms in the hyperthermophilic archaeal genus Sulfolobus 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):671-678.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-mediated virus defense based on small RNAs is a hallmark of archaea and also found in many bacteria. Archaeal genomes and, in particular, organisms of the extremely thermoacidophilic genus Sulfolobus, carry extensive CRISPR loci each with dozens of sequence signatures (spacers) able to mediate targeting and degradation of complementary invading nucleic acids. The diversity of CRISPR systems and their associated protein complexes indicates an extensive functional breadth and versatility of this adaptive immune system. Sulfolobus solfataricus and S. islandicus represent two of the best characterized genetic model organisms in the archaea not only with respect to the CRISPR system. Here we address and discuss in a broader context particularly recent progress made in understanding spacer recruitment from foreign DNA, production of small RNAs, in vitro activity of CRISPR-associated protein complexes and attack of viruses and plasmids in in vivo test systems.
PMCID: PMC3737324  PMID: 23535277
Sulfolobales; archaea; virus defense; CRISPR-Cas system; small RNAs
6.  Diversity, Activity, and Evolution of CRISPR Loci in Streptococcus thermophilus▿ † 
Journal of Bacteriology  2007;190(4):1401-1412.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) are hypervariable loci widely distributed in prokaryotes that provide acquired immunity against foreign genetic elements. Here, we characterize a novel Streptococcus thermophilus locus, CRISPR3, and experimentally demonstrate its ability to integrate novel spacers in response to bacteriophage. Also, we analyze CRISPR diversity and activity across three distinct CRISPR loci in several S. thermophilus strains. We show that both CRISPR repeats and cas genes are locus specific and functionally coupled. A total of 124 strains were studied, and 109 unique spacer arrangements were observed across the three CRISPR loci. Overall, 3,626 spacers were analyzed, including 2,829 for CRISPR1 (782 unique), 173 for CRISPR2 (16 unique), and 624 for CRISPR3 (154 unique). Sequence analysis of the spacers revealed homology and identity to phage sequences (77%), plasmid sequences (16%), and S. thermophilus chromosomal sequences (7%). Polymorphisms were observed for the CRISPR repeats, CRISPR spacers, cas genes, CRISPR motif, locus architecture, and specific sequence content. Interestingly, CRISPR loci evolved both via polarized addition of novel spacers after exposure to foreign genetic elements and via internal deletion of spacers. We hypothesize that the level of diversity is correlated with relative CRISPR activity and propose that the activity is highest for CRISPR1, followed by CRISPR3, while CRISPR2 may be degenerate. Globally, the dynamic nature of CRISPR loci might prove valuable for typing and comparative analyses of strains and microbial populations. Also, CRISPRs provide critical insights into the relationships between prokaryotes and their environments, notably the coevolution of host and viral genomes.
PMCID: PMC2238196  PMID: 18065539
7.  Cytotoxic Chromosomal Targeting by CRISPR/Cas Systems Can Reshape Bacterial Genomes and Expel or Remodel Pathogenicity Islands 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(4):e1003454.
In prokaryotes, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) and their associated (Cas) proteins constitute a defence system against bacteriophages and plasmids. CRISPR/Cas systems acquire short spacer sequences from foreign genetic elements and incorporate these into their CRISPR arrays, generating a memory of past invaders. Defence is provided by short non-coding RNAs that guide Cas proteins to cleave complementary nucleic acids. While most spacers are acquired from phages and plasmids, there are examples of spacers that match genes elsewhere in the host bacterial chromosome. In Pectobacterium atrosepticum the type I-F CRISPR/Cas system has acquired a self-complementary spacer that perfectly matches a protospacer target in a horizontally acquired island (HAI2) involved in plant pathogenicity. Given the paucity of experimental data about CRISPR/Cas–mediated chromosomal targeting, we examined this process by developing a tightly controlled system. Chromosomal targeting was highly toxic via targeting of DNA and resulted in growth inhibition and cellular filamentation. The toxic phenotype was avoided by mutations in the cas operon, the CRISPR repeats, the protospacer target, and protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM) beside the target. Indeed, the natural self-targeting spacer was non-toxic due to a single nucleotide mutation adjacent to the target in the PAM sequence. Furthermore, we show that chromosomal targeting can result in large-scale genomic alterations, including the remodelling or deletion of entire pre-existing pathogenicity islands. These features can be engineered for the targeted deletion of large regions of bacterial chromosomes. In conclusion, in DNA–targeting CRISPR/Cas systems, chromosomal interference is deleterious by causing DNA damage and providing a strong selective pressure for genome alterations, which may have consequences for bacterial evolution and pathogenicity.
Author Summary
Bacteria have evolved mechanisms that provide protection from continual invasion by viruses and other foreign elements. Resistance systems, known as CRISPR/Cas, were recently discovered and equip bacteria and archaea with an “adaptive immune system.” This adaptive immunity provides a highly evolvable sequence-specific small RNA–based memory of past invasions by viruses and foreign genetic elements. There are many cases where these systems appear to target regions within the bacterial host's own genome (a possible autoimmunity), but the evolutionary rationale for this is unclear. Here, we demonstrate that CRISPR/Cas targeting of the host chromosome is highly toxic but that cells survive through mutations that alleviate the immune mechanism. We have used this phenotype to gain insight into how these systems function and show that large changes in the bacterial genome can occur. For example, targeting of a chromosomal pathogenicity island, important for virulence of the potato pathogen Pectobacterium atrosepticum, resulted in deletion of the island, which constituted ∼2% of the bacterial genome. These results have broad significance for the role of CRISPR/Cas systems and their impact on the evolution of bacterial genomes and virulence. In addition, this study demonstrates their potential as a tool for the targeted deletion of specific regions of bacterial chromosomes.
PMCID: PMC3630108  PMID: 23637624
8.  Intricate Interactions between the Bloom-Forming Cyanobacterium Microcystis aeruginosa and Foreign Genetic Elements, Revealed by Diversified Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR) Signatures 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2012;78(15):5353-5360.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) confer sequence-dependent, adaptive resistance in prokaryotes against viruses and plasmids via incorporation of short sequences, called spacers, derived from foreign genetic elements. CRISPR loci are thus considered to provide records of past infections. To describe the host-parasite (i.e., cyanophages and plasmids) interactions involving the bloom-forming freshwater cyanobacterium Microcystis aeruginosa, we investigated CRISPR in four M. aeruginosa strains and in two previously sequenced genomes. The number of spacers in each locus was larger than the average among prokaryotes. All spacers were strain specific, except for a string of 11 spacers shared in two closely related strains, suggesting diversification of the loci. Using CRISPR repeat-based PCR, 24 CRISPR genotypes were identified in a natural cyanobacterial community. Among 995 unique spacers obtained, only 10 sequences showed similarity to M. aeruginosa phage Ma-LMM01. Of these, six spacers showed only silent or conservative nucleotide mutations compared to Ma-LMM01 sequences, suggesting a strategy by the cyanophage to avert CRISPR immunity dependent on nucleotide identity. These results imply that host-phage interactions can be divided into M. aeruginosa-cyanophage combinations rather than pandemics of population-wide infectious cyanophages. Spacer similarity also showed frequent exposure of M. aeruginosa to small cryptic plasmids that were observed only in a few strains. Thus, the diversification of CRISPR implies that M. aeruginosa has been challenged by diverse communities (almost entirely uncharacterized) of cyanophages and plasmids.
PMCID: PMC3416447  PMID: 22636003
9.  Multidrug-Resistant Enterococci Lack CRISPR-cas 
mBio  2010;1(4):e00227-10.
Clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) provide bacteria and archaea with sequence-specific, acquired defense against plasmids and phage. Because mobile elements constitute up to 25% of the genome of multidrug-resistant (MDR) enterococci, it was of interest to examine the codistribution of CRISPR and acquired antibiotic resistance in enterococcal lineages. A database was built from 16 Enterococcus faecalis draft genome sequences to identify commonalities and polymorphisms in the location and content of CRISPR loci. With this data set, we were able to detect identities between CRISPR spacers and sequences from mobile elements, including pheromone-responsive plasmids and phage, suggesting that CRISPR regulates the flux of these elements through the E. faecalis species. Based on conserved locations of CRISPR and CRISPR-cas loci and the discovery of a new CRISPR locus with associated functional genes, CRISPR3-cas, we screened additional E. faecalis strains for CRISPR content, including isolates predating the use of antibiotics. We found a highly significant inverse correlation between the presence of a CRISPR-cas locus and acquired antibiotic resistance in E. faecalis, and examination of an additional eight E. faecium genomes yielded similar results for that species. A mechanism for CRISPR-cas loss in E. faecalis was identified. The inverse relationship between CRISPR-cas and antibiotic resistance suggests that antibiotic use inadvertently selects for enterococcal strains with compromised genome defense.
For many bacteria, including the opportunistically pathogenic enterococci, antibiotic resistance is mediated by acquisition of new DNA and is frequently encoded on mobile DNA elements such as plasmids and transposons. Certain enterococcal lineages have recently emerged that are characterized by abundant mobile DNA, including numerous viruses (phage), and plasmids and transposons encoding multiple antibiotic resistances. These lineages cause hospital infection outbreaks around the world. The striking influx of mobile DNA into these lineages is in contrast to what would be expected if a self (genome)-defense system was present. Clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) defense is a recently discovered mechanism of prokaryotic self-defense that provides a type of acquired immunity. Here, we find that antibiotic resistance and possession of complete CRISPR loci are inversely related and that members of recently emerged high-risk enterococcal lineages lack complete CRISPR loci. Our results suggest that antibiotic therapy inadvertently selects for enterococci with compromised genome defense.
PMCID: PMC2975353  PMID: 21060735
10.  Diversity, Evolution, and Functionality of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR) Regions in the Fire Blight Pathogen Erwinia amylovora▿† 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2011;77(11):3819-3829.
The clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)/Cas system confers acquired heritable immunity against mobile nucleic acid elements in prokaryotes, limiting phage infection and horizontal gene transfer of plasmids. In CRISPR arrays, characteristic repeats are interspersed with similarly sized nonrepetitive spacers derived from transmissible genetic elements and acquired when the cell is challenged with foreign DNA. New spacers are added sequentially and the number and type of CRISPR units can differ among strains, providing a record of phage/plasmid exposure within a species and giving a valuable typing tool. The aim of this work was to investigate CRISPR diversity in the highly homogeneous species Erwinia amylovora, the causal agent of fire blight. A total of 18 CRISPR genotypes were defined within a collection of 37 cosmopolitan strains. Strains from Spiraeoideae plants clustered in three major groups: groups II and III were composed exclusively of bacteria originating from the United States, whereas group I generally contained strains of more recent dissemination obtained in Europe, New Zealand, and the Middle East. Strains from Rosoideae and Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) clustered separately and displayed a higher intrinsic diversity than that of isolates from Spiraeoideae plants. Reciprocal exclusion was generally observed between plasmid content and cognate spacer sequences, supporting the role of the CRISPR/Cas system in protecting against foreign DNA elements. However, in several group III strains, retention of plasmid pEU30 is inconsistent with a functional CRISPR/Cas system.
PMCID: PMC3127596  PMID: 21460108
11.  Self vs. non-self discrimination during CRISPR RNA-directed immunity 
Nature  2010;463(7280):568-571.
All immune systems must distinguish self from non-self to repel invaders without inducing autoimmunity. Clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) loci protect bacteria and archaea from invasion by phage and plasmid DNA through a genetic interference pathway1–9. CRISPR loci are present in ~ 40% and ~90% of sequenced bacterial and archaeal genomes respectively10 and evolve rapidly, acquiring new spacer sequences to adapt to highly dynamic viral populations1, 11–13. Immunity requires a sequence match between the invasive DNA and the spacers that lie between CRISPR repeats1–9. Each cluster is genetically linked to a subset of the cas (CRISPR-associated) genes14–16 that collectively encode >40 families of proteins involved in adaptation and interference. CRISPR loci encode small CRISPR RNAs (crRNAs) that contain a full spacer flanked by partial repeat sequences2, 17–19. CrRNA spacers are thought to identify targets by direct Watson-Crick pairing with invasive “protospacer” DNA2, 3, but how they avoid targeting the spacer DNA within the encoding CRISPR locus itself is unknown. Here we have defined the mechanism of CRISPR self/non-self discrimination. In Staphylococcus epidermidis, target/crRNA mismatches at specific positions outside of the spacer sequence license foreign DNA for interference, whereas extended pairing between crRNA and CRISPR DNA repeats prevents autoimmunity. Hence, this CRISPR system uses the base-pairing potential of crRNAs not only to specify a target but also to spare the bacterial chromosome from interference. Differential complementarity outside of the spacer sequence is a built-in feature of all CRISPR systems, suggesting that this mechanism is a broadly applicable solution to the self/non-self dilemma that confronts all immune pathways.
PMCID: PMC2813891  PMID: 20072129
12.  CRISPR-spacer integration reporter plasmids reveal distinct genuine acquisition specificities among CRISPR-Cas I-E variants of Escherichia coli 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):792-802.
Prokaryotes immunize themselves against transmissible genetic elements by the integration (acquisition) in clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) loci of spacers homologous to invader nucleic acids, defined as protospacers. Following acquisition, mono-spacer CRISPR RNAs (termed crRNAs) guide CRISPR-associated (Cas) proteins to degrade (interference) protospacers flanked by an adjacent motif in extrachomosomal DNA. During acquisition, selection of spacer-precursors adjoining the protospacer motif and proper orientation of the integrated fragment with respect to the leader (sequence leading transcription of the flanking CRISPR array) grant efficient interference by at least some CRISPR-Cas systems. This adaptive stage of the CRISPR action is poorly characterized, mainly due to the lack of appropriate genetic strategies to address its study and, at least in Escherichia coli, the need of Cas overproduction for insertion detection. In this work, we describe the development and application in Escherichia coli strains of an interference-independent assay based on engineered selectable CRISPR-spacer integration reporter plasmids. By using this tool without the constraint of interference or cas overexpression, we confirmed fundamental aspects of this process such as the critical requirement of Cas1 and Cas2 and the identity of the CTT protospacer motif for the E. coli K12 system. In addition, we defined the CWT motif for a non-K12 CRISPR-Cas variant, and obtained data supporting the implication of the leader in spacer orientation, the preferred acquisition from plasmids harboring cas genes and the occurrence of a sequential cleavage at the insertion site by a ruler mechanism.
PMCID: PMC3737337  PMID: 23445770
CRISPR-spacer acquisition; Cascade; Escherichia coli K12; O157:H7; RNA-guided immunity; cas genes; protospacer adjacent motif; reporter plasmids; ruler mechanism; spacer orientation
13.  Control of gene expression by CRISPR-Cas systems 
F1000Prime Reports  2013;5:47.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) loci and their associated cas (CRISPR-associated) genes provide adaptive immunity against viruses (phages) and other mobile genetic elements in bacteria and archaea. While most of the early work has largely been dominated by examples of CRISPR-Cas systems directing the cleavage of phage or plasmid DNA, recent studies have revealed a more complex landscape where CRISPR-Cas loci might be involved in gene regulation. In this review, we summarize the role of these loci in the regulation of gene expression as well as the recent development of synthetic gene regulation using engineered CRISPR-Cas systems.
PMCID: PMC3816762  PMID: 24273648
14.  Diverse CRISPRs Evolving in Human Microbiomes 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(6):e1002441.
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) loci, together with cas (CRISPR–associated) genes, form the CRISPR/Cas adaptive immune system, a primary defense strategy that eubacteria and archaea mobilize against foreign nucleic acids, including phages and conjugative plasmids. Short spacer sequences separated by the repeats are derived from foreign DNA and direct interference to future infections. The availability of hundreds of shotgun metagenomic datasets from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) enables us to explore the distribution and diversity of known CRISPRs in human-associated microbial communities and to discover new CRISPRs. We propose a targeted assembly strategy to reconstruct CRISPR arrays, which whole-metagenome assemblies fail to identify. For each known CRISPR type (identified from reference genomes), we use its direct repeat consensus sequence to recruit reads from each HMP dataset and then assemble the recruited reads into CRISPR loci; the unique spacer sequences can then be extracted for analysis. We also identified novel CRISPRs or new CRISPR variants in contigs from whole-metagenome assemblies and used targeted assembly to more comprehensively identify these CRISPRs across samples. We observed that the distributions of CRISPRs (including 64 known and 86 novel ones) are largely body-site specific. We provide detailed analysis of several CRISPR loci, including novel CRISPRs. For example, known streptococcal CRISPRs were identified in most oral microbiomes, totaling ∼8,000 unique spacers: samples resampled from the same individual and oral site shared the most spacers; different oral sites from the same individual shared significantly fewer, while different individuals had almost no common spacers, indicating the impact of subtle niche differences on the evolution of CRISPR defenses. We further demonstrate potential applications of CRISPRs to the tracing of rare species and the virus exposure of individuals. This work indicates the importance of effective identification and characterization of CRISPR loci to the study of the dynamic ecology of microbiomes.
Author Summary
Human bodies are complex ecological systems in which various microbial organisms and viruses interact with each other and with the human host. The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) has resulted in >700 datasets of shotgun metagenomic sequences, from which we can learn about the compositions and functions of human-associated microbial communities. CRISPR/Cas systems are a widespread class of adaptive immune systems in bacteria and archaea, providing acquired immunity against foreign nucleic acids: CRISPR/Cas defense pathways involve integration of viral- or plasmid-derived DNA segments into CRISPR arrays (forming spacers between repeated structural sequences), and expression of short crRNAs from these single repeat-spacer units, to generate interference to future invading foreign genomes. Powered by an effective computational approach (the targeted assembly approach for CRISPR), our analysis of CRISPR arrays in the HMP datasets provides the very first global view of bacterial immunity systems in human-associated microbial communities. The great diversity of CRISPR spacers we observed among different body sites, in different individuals, and in single individuals over time, indicates the impact of subtle niche differences on the evolution of CRISPR defenses and indicates the key role of bacteriophage (and plasmids) in shaping human microbial communities.
PMCID: PMC3374615  PMID: 22719260
15.  Evolutionary conservation of sequence and secondary structures in CRISPR repeats 
Genome Biology  2007;8(4):R61.
The categorisation and structural analysis of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPRs) sequences from 195 microbial genomes show that repeats from diverse organisms can be grouped based on sequence similarity, and that some groups have pronounced secondary structures with compensatory base changes.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) are a novel class of direct repeats, separated by unique spacer sequences of similar length, that are present in approximately 40% of bacterial and most archaeal genomes analyzed to date. More than 40 gene families, called CRISPR-associated sequences (CASs), appear in conjunction with these repeats and are thought to be involved in the propagation and functioning of CRISPRs. It has been recently shown that CRISPR provides acquired resistance against viruses in prokaryotes.
Here we analyze CRISPR repeats identified in 195 microbial genomes and show that they can be organized into multiple clusters based on sequence similarity. Some of the clusters present stable, highly conserved RNA secondary structures, while others lack detectable structures. Stable secondary structures exhibit multiple compensatory base changes in the stem region, indicating evolutionary and functional conservation.
We show that the repeat-based classification corresponds to, and expands upon, a previously reported CAS gene-based classification, including specific relationships between CRISPR and CAS subtypes.
PMCID: PMC1896005  PMID: 17442114
16.  Conservation of streptococcal CRISPRs on human skin and saliva 
BMC Microbiology  2014;14:146.
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPRs) are utilized by bacteria to resist encounters with their viruses. Human body surfaces have numerous bacteria that harbor CRISPRs, and their content can provide clues as to the types and features of viruses they may have encountered.
We investigated the conservation of CRISPR content from streptococci on skin and saliva of human subjects over 8-weeks to determine whether similarities existed in the CRISPR spacer profiles and whether CRISPR spacers were a stable component of each biogeographic site. Most of the CRISPR sequences identified were unique, but a small proportion of spacers from the skin and saliva of each subject matched spacers derived from previously sequenced loci of S. thermophilus and other streptococci. There were significant proportions of CRISPR spacers conserved over the entire 8-week study period for all subjects, and salivary CRISPR spacers sampled in the mornings showed significantly higher levels of conservation than any other time of day. We also found substantial similarities in the spacer repertoires of the skin and saliva of each subject. Many skin-derived spacers matched salivary viruses, supporting that bacteria of the skin may encounter viruses with similar sequences to those found in the mouth. Despite the similarities between skin and salivary spacer repertoires, the variation present was distinct based on each subject and body site.
The conservation of CRISPR spacers in the saliva and the skin of human subjects over the time period studied suggests a relative conservation of the bacteria harboring them.
PMCID: PMC4063239  PMID: 24903519
CRISPR; Skin microbiome; Saliva microbiome; Virome; Virus
17.  Cleavage of Phage DNA by the Streptococcus thermophilus CRISPR3-Cas System 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e40913.
Streptococcus thermophilus, similar to other Bacteria and Archaea, has developed defense mechanisms to protect cells against invasion by foreign nucleic acids, such as virus infections and plasmid transformations. One defense system recently described in these organisms is the CRISPR-Cas system (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats loci coupled to CRISPR-associated genes). Two S. thermophilus CRISPR-Cas systems, CRISPR1-Cas and CRISPR3-Cas, have been shown to actively block phage infection. The CRISPR1-Cas system interferes by cleaving foreign dsDNA entering the cell in a length-specific and orientation-dependant manner. Here, we show that the S. thermophilus CRISPR3-Cas system acts by cleaving phage dsDNA genomes at the same specific position inside the targeted protospacer as observed with the CRISPR1-Cas system. Only one cleavage site was observed in all tested strains. Moreover, we observed that the CRISPR1-Cas and CRISPR3-Cas systems are compatible and, when both systems are present within the same cell, provide increased resistance against phage infection by both cleaving the invading dsDNA. We also determined that overall phage resistance efficiency is correlated to the total number of newly acquired spacers in both CRISPR loci.
PMCID: PMC3401199  PMID: 22911717
18.  In defense of phage 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):886-890.
Viruses that infect bacteria are the most abundant biological agents on the planet and bacteria have evolved diverse defense mechanisms to combat these genetic parasites. One of these bacterial defense systems relies on a repetitive locus, referred to as a CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). Bacteria and archaea acquire resistance to invading viruses and plasmids by integrating short fragments of foreign nucleic acids at one end of the CRISPR locus. CRISPR loci are transcribed and the long primary CRISPR transcript is processed into a library of small RNAs that guide the immune system to invading nucleic acids, which are subsequently degraded by dedicated nucleases. However, the development of CRISPR-mediated immune systems has not eradicated phages, suggesting that viruses have evolved mechanisms to subvert CRISPR-mediated protection. Recently, Bondy-Denomy and colleagues discovered several phage-encoded anti-CRISPR proteins that offer new insight into the ongoing molecular arms race between viral parasites and the immune systems of their hosts.
PMCID: PMC3737345  PMID: 23392292
phage; bacterial immunity; RNA-guided immunity; anti-CRISPR; viral suppressors of RNAi (VSR); viral suppressors of CRISPR (VSC)
19.  Genetic determinants of PAM-dependent DNA targeting and pre-crRNA processing in Sulfolobus islandicus 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):738-748.
Bacteria and Archaea encode clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) systems to confer adaptive immunity to invasive viruses and plasmids. Recent studies of CRISPR systems revealed that diverse CRISPR-associated (Cas) interference modules often coexist in different organisms but functions of cas genes have not been dissected in any of these systems. The crenarchaeon Sulfolobus islandicus encodes three distinct CRISPR interference modules, including a type IA system and two type IIIB systems: Cmr-α and Cmr-β. To study the genetic determinants of protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM)-dependent DNA targeting activity and mature CRISPR RNA (crRNA) production in this organism, mutants deleting individual genes of the type IA system or removing each of other Cas modules were constructed. Characterization of these mutants revealed that Cas7, Cas5, Cas6, Cas3′ and Cas3” are essential for PAM-dependent DNA targeting activity, whereas Csa5, along with all other Cas modules, is dispensable for the targeting in the crenarchaeon. Cas6 is implicated as the only enzyme for pre-crRNA processing and the crRNA maturation is independent of the DNA targeting activity. Importantly, we show that Cas7 and Cas5 are essential for stabilizing the processing intermediates and mature crRNAs, respectively, and that depleting the helicase or nuclease domain of Cas3 leads to the accumulation of processing intermediates. This demonstrates that in addition to Cas6, other Cas proteins of an archaeal type IA system also contribute to crRNA processing.
PMCID: PMC3737332  PMID: 23392249
CRISPR/Cas; Cascade; protospacer-adjacent motifs; crRNA biogenesis; DNA interference; cas mutants; Sulfolobus islandicus
20.  CRISPR interference: a structural perspective 
Biochemical Journal  2013;453(Pt 2):155-166.
CRISPR (cluster of regularly interspaced palindromic repeats) is a prokaryotic adaptive defence system, providing immunity against mobile genetic elements such as viruses. Genomically encoded crRNA (CRISPR RNA) is used by Cas (CRISPR-associated) proteins to target and subsequently degrade nucleic acids of invading entities in a sequence-dependent manner. The process is known as ‘interference’. In the present review we cover recent progress on the structural biology of the CRISPR/Cas system, focusing on the Cas proteins and complexes that catalyse crRNA biogenesis and interference. Structural studies have helped in the elucidation of key mechanisms, including the recognition and cleavage of crRNA by the Cas6 and Cas5 proteins, where remarkable diversity at the level of both substrate recognition and catalysis has become apparent. The RNA-binding RAMP (repeat-associated mysterious protein) domain is present in the Cas5, Cas6, Cas7 and Cmr3 protein families and RAMP-like domains are found in Cas2 and Cas10. Structural analysis has also revealed an evolutionary link between the small subunits of the type I and type III-B interference complexes. Future studies of the interference complexes and their constituent components will transform our understanding of the system.
PMCID: PMC3727216  PMID: 23805973
antiviral defence; cluster of regularly interspaced palindromic repeats (CRISPR); crystallography; evolution; protein structure; repeat-associated mysterious protein (RAMP); BhCas5c, Bacillus halodurans Cas5c; CRISPR, cluster of regularly interspaced palindromic repeats; Cas, CRISPR-associated; Cascade, CRISPR-associated complex for antiviral defence; crRNA, CRISPR RNA; dsDNA, double-stranded DNA; EcoCas3, Escherichia coli Cas3; EM, electron microscopy; HD, histidine–aspartate; MjaCas3″, Methanocaldococcus jannaschii Cas3″; PaCas6f, Pseudomonas aeruginosa Cas6f; PAM, protospacer adjacent motif; PfuCas, Pyrococcus furiosus Cas; pre-crRNA, precursor crRNA; RAMP, repeat-associated mysterious protein; RRM, RNA recognition motif; ssDNA, single-stranded DNA; SsoCas, Sulfolobus solfataricus Cas; ssRNA, single-stranded RNA; SthCas3, Streptococcus thermophilus Cas3; tracrRNA, trans-activating crRNA; TtCas, Thermus thermophilus Cas
21.  CRISPR-Cas Systems in the Cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC6803 Exhibit Distinct Processing Pathways Involving at Least Two Cas6 and a Cmr2 Protein 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(2):e56470.
The CRISPR-Cas (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats – CRISPR associated proteins) system provides adaptive immunity in archaea and bacteria. A hallmark of CRISPR-Cas is the involvement of short crRNAs that guide associated proteins in the destruction of invading DNA or RNA. We present three fundamentally distinct processing pathways in the cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC6803 for a subtype I-D (CRISPR1), and two type III systems (CRISPR2 and CRISPR3), which are located together on the plasmid pSYSA. Using high-throughput transcriptome analyses and assays of transcript accumulation we found all CRISPR loci to be highly expressed, but the individual crRNAs had profoundly varying abundances despite single transcription start sites for each array. In a computational analysis, CRISPR3 spacers with stable secondary structures displayed a greater ratio of degradation products. These structures might interfere with the loading of the crRNAs into RNP complexes, explaining the varying abundancies. The maturation of CRISPR1 and CRISPR2 transcripts depends on at least two different Cas6 proteins. Mutation of gene sll7090, encoding a Cmr2 protein led to the disappearance of all CRISPR3-derived crRNAs, providing in vivo evidence for a function of Cmr2 in the maturation, regulation of expression, Cmr complex formation or stabilization of CRISPR3 transcripts. Finally, we optimized CRISPR repeat structure prediction and the results indicate that the spacer context can influence individual repeat structures.
PMCID: PMC3575380  PMID: 23441196
22.  Structure of a dimeric crenarchaeal Cas6 enzyme with an atypical active site for CRISPR RNA processing 
Biochemical Journal  2013;452(Pt 2):223-230.
The competition between viruses and hosts is played out in all branches of life. Many prokaryotes have an adaptive immune system termed ‘CRISPR’ (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) which is based on the capture of short pieces of viral DNA. The captured DNA is integrated into the genomic DNA of the organism flanked by direct repeats, transcribed and processed to generate crRNA (CRISPR RNA) that is loaded into a variety of effector complexes. These complexes carry out sequence-specific detection and destruction of invading mobile genetic elements. In the present paper, we report the structure and activity of a Cas6 (CRISPR-associated 6) enzyme (Sso1437) from Sulfolobus solfataricus responsible for the generation of unit-length crRNA species. The crystal structure reveals an unusual dimeric organization that is important for the enzyme's activity. In addition, the active site lacks the canonical catalytic histidine residue that has been viewed as an essential feature of the Cas6 family. Although several residues contribute towards catalysis, none is absolutely essential. Coupled with the very low catalytic rate constants of the Cas6 family and the plasticity of the active site, this suggests that the crRNA recognition and chaperone-like activities of the Cas6 family should be considered as equal to or even more important than their role as traditional enzymes.
PMCID: PMC3652601  PMID: 23527601
antiviral defence; Cas6; clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR); ribonuclease; Sulfolobus; CRISPR, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats; Cas, CRISPR-associated; crRNA, CRISPR RNA; Ni-NTA, Ni2+-nitrilotriacetate; PaCas6f, Pseudomonas aeruginosa Cas6; PfuCas6, Pyrococcus furiosus Cas6; RAMP, repeat-associated mysterious protein; RMSD, root mean square deviation; RRM, RNA-recognition motif; SAD, single-wavelength anomalous dispersion; SsoCas6, Sulfolobus solfataricus Cas6; TBE, Tris/borate/EDTA; TEV, tobacco etch virus; TtCas6e, Thermus thermophilus Cas6
23.  Comparative analysis of Cas6b processing and CRISPR RNA stability 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):700-707.
The prokaryotic antiviral defense systems CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas (CRISPR-associated) employs short crRNAs (CRISPR RNAs) to target invading viral nucleic acids. A short spacer sequence of these crRNAs can be derived from a viral genome and recognizes a reoccurring attack of a virus via base complementarity. We analyzed the effect of spacer sequences on the maturation of crRNAs of the subtype I-B Methanococcus maripaludis C5 CRISPR cluster. The responsible endonuclease, termed Cas6b, bound non-hydrolyzable repeat RNA as a dimer and mature crRNA as a monomer. Comparative analysis of Cas6b processing of individual spacer-repeat-spacer RNA substrates and crRNA stability revealed the potential influence of spacer sequence and length on these parameters. Correlation of these observations with the variable abundance of crRNAs visualized by deep-sequencing analyses is discussed. Finally, insertion of spacer and repeat sequences with archaeal poly-T termination signals is suggested to be prevented in archaeal CRISPR/Cas systems.
PMCID: PMC3737328  PMID: 23392318
CRISPR; Cas6; endonuclease; crRNA; in-line probing; RNA binding; transcription termination
24.  An Archaeal Immune System Can Detect Multiple Protospacer Adjacent Motifs (PAMs) to Target Invader DNA* 
The Journal of Biological Chemistry  2012;287(40):33351-33363.
Background: CRISPR/Cas systems allow archaea and bacteria to resist invasion by foreign nucleic acids.
Results: The CRISPR/Cas system in Haloferax recognized six different PAM sequences that could trigger a defense response.
Conclusion: The PAM sequence specificity of the defense response in type I CRISPR systems is more relaxed than previously thought.
Significance: The PAM sequence requirements for interference and adaptation appear to differ markedly.
The clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) system provides adaptive and heritable immunity against foreign genetic elements in most archaea and many bacteria. Although this system is widespread and diverse with many subtypes, only a few species have been investigated to elucidate the precise mechanisms for the defense of viruses or plasmids. Approximately 90% of all sequenced archaea encode CRISPR/Cas systems, but their molecular details have so far only been examined in three archaeal species: Sulfolobus solfataricus, Sulfolobus islandicus, and Pyrococcus furiosus. Here, we analyzed the CRISPR/Cas system of Haloferax volcanii using a plasmid-based invader assay. Haloferax encodes a type I-B CRISPR/Cas system with eight Cas proteins and three CRISPR loci for which the identity of protospacer adjacent motifs (PAMs) was unknown until now. We identified six different PAM sequences that are required upstream of the protospacer to permit target DNA recognition. This is only the second archaeon for which PAM sequences have been determined, and the first CRISPR group with such a high number of PAM sequences. Cells could survive the plasmid challenge if their CRISPR/Cas system was altered or defective, e.g. by deletion of the cas gene cassette. Experimental PAM data were supplemented with bioinformatics data on Haloferax and Haloquadratum.
PMCID: PMC3460438  PMID: 22767603
Archaea; Microbiology; RNA; RNA Metabolism; RNA Processing; CRISPR/Cas; Haloferax volcanii; PAM
25.  CRISPR-Cas Functional Module Exchange in Escherichia coli 
mBio  2014;5(1):e00767-13.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated (cas) genes constitute the CRISPR-Cas systems found in the Bacteria and Archaea domains. At least in some strains they provide an efficient barrier against transmissible genetic elements such as plasmids and viruses. Two CRISPR-Cas systems have been identified in Escherichia coli, pertaining to subtypes I-E (cas-E genes) and I-F (cas-F genes), respectively. In order to unveil the evolutionary dynamics of such systems, we analyzed the sequence variations in the CRISPR-Cas loci of a collection of 131 E. coli strains. Our results show that the strain grouping inferred from these CRISPR data slightly differs from the phylogeny of the species, suggesting the occurrence of recombinational events between CRISPR arrays. Moreover, we determined that the primary cas-E genes of E. coli were altogether replaced with a substantially different variant in a minor group of strains that include K-12. Insertion elements play an important role in this variability. This result underlines the interchange capacity of CRISPR-Cas constituents and hints that at least some functional aspects documented for the K-12 system may not apply to the vast majority of E. coli strains.
Escherichia coli is a model microorganism for the study of diverse aspects such as microbial evolution and is a component of the human gut flora that may have a direct impact in everyday life. This work was undertaken with the purpose of elucidating the evolutionary pathways that have led to the present situation of its significantly different CRISPR-Cas subtypes (I-E and I-F) in several strains of E. coli. In doing so, this information offers a novel and wider understanding of the variety and relevance of these regions within the species. Therefore, this knowledge may provide clues helping researchers better understand these systems for typing purposes and make predictions of their behavior in strains that, depending on their particular genetic dotation, would result in different levels of immunity to foreign genetic elements.
PMCID: PMC3903273  PMID: 24473126

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