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1.  Persisting Viral Sequences Shape Microbial CRISPR-based Immunity 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(4):e1002475.
Well-studied innate immune systems exist throughout bacteria and archaea, but a more recently discovered genomic locus may offer prokaryotes surprising immunological adaptability. Mediated by a cassette-like genomic locus termed Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), the microbial adaptive immune system differs from its eukaryotic immune analogues by incorporating new immunities unidirectionally. CRISPR thus stores genomically recoverable timelines of virus-host coevolution in natural organisms refractory to laboratory cultivation. Here we combined a population genetic mathematical model of CRISPR-virus coevolution with six years of metagenomic sequencing to link the recoverable genomic dynamics of CRISPR loci to the unknown population dynamics of virus and host in natural communities. Metagenomic reconstructions in an acid-mine drainage system document CRISPR loci conserving ancestral immune elements to the base-pair across thousands of microbial generations. This ‘trailer-end conservation’ occurs despite rapid viral mutation and despite rapid prokaryotic genomic deletion. The trailer-ends of many reconstructed CRISPR loci are also largely identical across a population. ‘Trailer-end clonality’ occurs despite predictions of host immunological diversity due to negative frequency dependent selection (kill the winner dynamics). Statistical clustering and model simulations explain this lack of diversity by capturing rapid selective sweeps by highly immune CRISPR lineages. Potentially explaining ‘trailer-end conservation,’ we record the first example of a viral bloom overwhelming a CRISPR system. The polyclonal viruses bloom even though they share sequences previously targeted by host CRISPR loci. Simulations show how increasing random genomic deletions in CRISPR loci purges immunological controls on long-lived viral sequences, allowing polyclonal viruses to bloom and depressing host fitness. Our results thus link documented patterns of genomic conservation in CRISPR loci to an evolutionary advantage against persistent viruses. By maintaining old immunities, selection may be tuning CRISPR-mediated immunity against viruses reemerging from lysogeny or migration.
Author Summary
Most microbes appear unculturable in the laboratory, limiting our knowledge of how virus and prokaryotic host evolve in natural systems. However, a genomic locus found in many prokaryotes, CRISPR, may offer cultivation-independent probes of virus-microbe coevolution. Utilizing nearby genes, CRISPR can serially incorporate short viral and plasmid sequences. These sequences bind and cleave cognate regions in subsequent viral and plasmid insertions, conferring adaptive anti-viral and anti-plasmid immunity. By incorporating sequences undirectionally, CRISPR also provides timelines of virus-prokaryote coevolution. Yet, CRISPR only incorporates 30–80 base-pair viral sequences, leaving incomplete coevolutionary recordings. To reconstruct the missing coevolutionary dynamics shaping natural CRISPRs, we combined metagenomic reconstructions with population-scale mathematical modeling. Capturing rare and rapid sweeps of CRISPR diversity by highly immune lines, mathematical modeling explains why naturally reconstructed CRISPR loci are often largely identical across a population. Both model and experiment further document surprising proliferations of old viral sequences against which hosts had preexisting CRISPR immunity. Due to these deadly blooms of ancestral viral elements, CRISPR's conservation of old immune sequences appears to confer a selective advantage. This may explain the striking immunological memory documented in CRISPR loci, which occurs despite rapid viral mutation and despite rapid deletions in prokaryotic genomes.
PMCID: PMC3330103  PMID: 22532794
2.  A putative RNA-interference-based immune system in prokaryotes: computational analysis of the predicted enzymatic machinery, functional analogies with eukaryotic RNAi, and hypothetical mechanisms of action 
Biology Direct  2006;1:7.
All archaeal and many bacterial genomes contain Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats (CRISPR) and variable arrays of the CRISPR-associated (cas) genes that have been previously implicated in a novel form of DNA repair on the basis of comparative analysis of their protein product sequences. However, the proximity of CRISPR and cas genes strongly suggests that they have related functions which is hard to reconcile with the repair hypothesis.
The protein sequences of the numerous cas gene products were classified into ~25 distinct protein families; several new functional and structural predictions are described. Comparative-genomic analysis of CRISPR and cas genes leads to the hypothesis that the CRISPR-Cas system (CASS) is a mechanism of defense against invading phages and plasmids that functions analogously to the eukaryotic RNA interference (RNAi) systems. Specific functional analogies are drawn between several components of CASS and proteins involved in eukaryotic RNAi, including the double-stranded RNA-specific helicase-nuclease (dicer), the endonuclease cleaving target mRNAs (slicer), and the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. However, none of the CASS components is orthologous to its apparent eukaryotic functional counterpart. It is proposed that unique inserts of CRISPR, some of which are homologous to fragments of bacteriophage and plasmid genes, function as prokaryotic siRNAs (psiRNA), by base-pairing with the target mRNAs and promoting their degradation or translation shutdown. Specific hypothetical schemes are developed for the functioning of the predicted prokaryotic siRNA system and for the formation of new CRISPR units with unique inserts encoding psiRNA conferring immunity to the respective newly encountered phages or plasmids. The unique inserts in CRISPR show virtually no similarity even between closely related bacterial strains which suggests their rapid turnover, on evolutionary scale. Corollaries of this finding are that, even among closely related prokaryotes, the most commonly encountered phages and plasmids are different and/or that the dominant phages and plasmids turn over rapidly.
We proposed previously that Cas proteins comprise a novel DNA repair system. The association of the cas genes with CRISPR and, especially, the presence, in CRISPR units, of unique inserts homologous to phage and plasmid genes make us abandon this hypothesis. It appears most likely that CASS is a prokaryotic system of defense against phages and plasmids that functions via the RNAi mechanism. The functioning of this system seems to involve integration of fragments of foreign genes into archaeal and bacterial chromosomes yielding heritable immunity to the respective agents. However, it appears that this inheritance is extremely unstable on the evolutionary scale such that the repertoires of unique psiRNAs are completely replaced even in closely related prokaryotes, presumably, in response to rapidly changing repertoires of dominant phages and plasmids.
This article was reviewed by: Eric Bapteste, Patrick Forterre, and Martijn Huynen.
Open peer review
Reviewed by Eric Bapteste, Patrick Forterre, and Martijn Huynen.
For the full reviews, please go to the Reviewers' comments section.
PMCID: PMC1462988  PMID: 16545108
3.  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
4.  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
5.  A Guild of 45 CRISPR-Associated (Cas) Protein Families and Multiple CRISPR/Cas Subtypes Exist in Prokaryotic Genomes 
PLoS Computational Biology  2005;1(6):e60.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) are a family of DNA direct repeats found in many prokaryotic genomes. Repeats of 21–37 bp typically show weak dyad symmetry and are separated by regularly sized, nonrepetitive spacer sequences. Four CRISPR-associated (Cas) protein families, designated Cas1 to Cas4, are strictly associated with CRISPR elements and always occur near a repeat cluster. Some spacers originate from mobile genetic elements and are thought to confer “immunity” against the elements that harbor these sequences. In the present study, we have systematically investigated uncharacterized proteins encoded in the vicinity of these CRISPRs and found many additional protein families that are strictly associated with CRISPR loci across multiple prokaryotic species. Multiple sequence alignments and hidden Markov models have been built for 45 Cas protein families. These models identify family members with high sensitivity and selectivity and classify key regulators of development, DevR and DevS, in Myxococcus xanthus as Cas proteins. These identifications show that CRISPR/cas gene regions can be quite large, with up to 20 different, tandem-arranged cas genes next to a repeat cluster or filling the region between two repeat clusters. Distinctive subsets of the collection of Cas proteins recur in phylogenetically distant species and correlate with characteristic repeat periodicity. The analyses presented here support initial proposals of mobility of these units, along with the likelihood that loci of different subtypes interact with one another as well as with host cell defensive, replicative, and regulatory systems. It is evident from this analysis that CRISPR/cas loci are larger, more complex, and more heterogeneous than previously appreciated.
The family of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) describes a class of DNA repeats found in nearly half of all bacterial and archaeal genomes. These DNA repeat regions have a remarkably regular structure: unique sequences of constant size, called spacers, sit between each pair of repeats. The DNA repeats do not encode proteins, but appear to be transcribed and processed into small RNAs that may have any number of functions, including resistance to any phage (i.e., virus of bacteria) whose sequence matches a spacer; spacers change rapidly as microbial strains evolve. This work describes 41 new CRISPR-associated (cas) gene families, which are always found near these repeats, in addition to the four previously known. It shows that CRISPR systems belong to different classes, with different repeat patterns, sets of genes, and species ranges. Most of these seem to come and go rather rapidly from their host genomes. These possibly beneficial mobile genetic elements may play an important role in driving prokaryotic evolution.
PMCID: PMC1282333  PMID: 16292354
6.  A PNPase Dependent CRISPR System in Listeria 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(1):e1004065.
The human bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes is emerging as a model organism to study RNA-mediated regulation in pathogenic bacteria. A class of non-coding RNAs called CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has been described to confer bacterial resistance against invading bacteriophages and conjugative plasmids. CRISPR function relies on the activity of CRISPR associated (cas) genes that encode a large family of proteins with nuclease or helicase activities and DNA and RNA binding domains. Here, we characterized a CRISPR element (RliB) that is expressed and processed in the L. monocytogenes strain EGD-e, which is completely devoid of cas genes. Structural probing revealed that RliB has an unexpected secondary structure comprising basepair interactions between the repeats and the adjacent spacers in place of canonical hairpins formed by the palindromic repeats. Moreover, in contrast to other CRISPR-Cas systems identified in Listeria, RliB-CRISPR is ubiquitously present among Listeria genomes at the same genomic locus and is never associated with the cas genes. We showed that RliB-CRISPR is a substrate for the endogenously encoded polynucleotide phosphorylase (PNPase) enzyme. The spacers of the different Listeria RliB-CRISPRs share many sequences with temperate and virulent phages. Furthermore, we show that a cas-less RliB-CRISPR lowers the acquisition frequency of a plasmid carrying the matching protospacer, provided that trans encoded cas genes of a second CRISPR-Cas system are present in the genome. Importantly, we show that PNPase is required for RliB-CRISPR mediated DNA interference. Altogether, our data reveal a yet undescribed CRISPR system whose both processing and activity depend on PNPase, highlighting a new and unexpected function for PNPase in “CRISPRology”.
Author Summary
CRISPR-Cas systems confer to bacteria and archaea an adaptive immunity that protects them against invading bacteriophages and plasmids. In this study, we characterize a CRISPR (RliB-CRISPR) that is present in all L. monocytogenes strains at the same genomic locus but is never associated with a cas operon. It is an unusual CRISPR that, as we demonstrate, has a secondary structure consisting of basepair interactions between the repeat sequence and the adjacent spacer. We show that the RliB-CRISPR is processed by the endogenously encoded polynucleotide phosphorylase enzyme (PNPase). In addition, we show that the RliB-CRISPR system requires PNPase and presence of trans encoded cas genes of a second CRISPR-Cas system, to mediate DNA interference directed against a plasmid carrying a matching protospacer. Altogether, our data reveal a novel type of CRISPR system in bacteria that requires endogenously encoded PNPase enzyme for its processing and interference activity.
PMCID: PMC3886909  PMID: 24415952
7.  The Small, Slow and Specialized CRISPR and Anti-CRISPR of Escherichia and Salmonella 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(6):e11126.
Prokaryotes thrive in spite of the vast number and diversity of their viruses. This partly results from the evolution of mechanisms to inactivate or silence the action of exogenous DNA. Among these, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) are unique in providing adaptive immunity against elements with high local resemblance to genomes of previously infecting agents. Here, we analyze the CRISPR loci of 51 complete genomes of Escherichia and Salmonella. CRISPR are in two pairs of loci in Escherichia, one single pair in Salmonella, each pair showing a similar turnover rate, repeat sequence and putative linkage to a common set of cas genes. Yet, phylogeny shows that CRISPR and associated cas genes have different evolutionary histories, the latter being frequently exchanged or lost. In our set, one CRISPR pair seems specialized in plasmids often matching genes coding for the replication, conjugation and antirestriction machinery. Strikingly, this pair also matches the cognate cas genes in which case these genes are absent. The unexpectedly high conservation of this anti-CRISPR suggests selection to counteract the invasion of mobile elements containing functional CRISPR/cas systems. There are few spacers in most CRISPR, which rarely match genomes of known phages. Furthermore, we found that strains divergent less than 250 thousand years ago show virtually identical CRISPR. The lack of congruence between cas, CRISPR and the species phylogeny and the slow pace of CRISPR change make CRISPR poor epidemiological markers in enterobacteria. All these observations are at odds with the expectedly abundant and dynamic repertoire of spacers in an immune system aiming at protecting bacteria from phages. Since we observe purifying selection for the maintenance of CRISPR these results suggest that alternative evolutionary roles for CRISPR remain to be uncovered.
PMCID: PMC2886076  PMID: 20559554
8.  Viral Diversity Threshold for Adaptive Immunity in Prokaryotes 
mBio  2012;3(6):e00456-12.
Bacteria and archaea face continual onslaughts of rapidly diversifying viruses and plasmids. Many prokaryotes maintain adaptive immune systems known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated genes (Cas). CRISPR-Cas systems are genomic sensors that serially acquire viral and plasmid DNA fragments (spacers) that are utilized to target and cleave matching viral and plasmid DNA in subsequent genomic invasions, offering critical immunological memory. Only 50% of sequenced bacteria possess CRISPR-Cas immunity, in contrast to over 90% of sequenced archaea. To probe why half of bacteria lack CRISPR-Cas immunity, we combined comparative genomics and mathematical modeling. Analysis of hundreds of diverse prokaryotic genomes shows that CRISPR-Cas systems are substantially more prevalent in thermophiles than in mesophiles. With sequenced bacteria disproportionately mesophilic and sequenced archaea mostly thermophilic, the presence of CRISPR-Cas appears to depend more on environmental temperature than on bacterial-archaeal taxonomy. Mutation rates are typically severalfold higher in mesophilic prokaryotes than in thermophilic prokaryotes. To quantitatively test whether accelerated viral mutation leads microbes to lose CRISPR-Cas systems, we developed a stochastic model of virus-CRISPR coevolution. The model competes CRISPR-Cas-positive (CRISPR-Cas+) prokaryotes against CRISPR-Cas-negative (CRISPR-Cas−) prokaryotes, continually weighing the antiviral benefits conferred by CRISPR-Cas immunity against its fitness costs. Tracking this cost-benefit analysis across parameter space reveals viral mutation rate thresholds beyond which CRISPR-Cas cannot provide sufficient immunity and is purged from host populations. These results offer a simple, testable viral diversity hypothesis to explain why mesophilic bacteria disproportionately lack CRISPR-Cas immunity. More generally, fundamental limits on the adaptability of biological sensors (Lamarckian evolution) are predicted.
A remarkable recent discovery in microbiology is that bacteria and archaea possess systems conferring immunological memory and adaptive immunity. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated genes (CRISPR-Cas) are genomic sensors that allow prokaryotes to acquire DNA fragments from invading viruses and plasmids. Providing immunological memory, these stored fragments destroy matching DNA in future viral and plasmid invasions. CRISPR-Cas systems also provide adaptive immunity, keeping up with mutating viruses and plasmids by continually acquiring new DNA fragments. Surprisingly, less than 50% of mesophilic bacteria, in contrast to almost 90% of thermophilic bacteria and Archaea, maintain CRISPR-Cas immunity. Using mathematical modeling, we probe this dichotomy, showing how increased viral mutation rates can explain the reduced prevalence of CRISPR-Cas systems in mesophiles. Rapidly mutating viruses outrun CRISPR-Cas immune systems, likely decreasing their prevalence in bacterial populations. Thus, viral adaptability may select against, rather than for, immune adaptability in prokaryotes.
PMCID: PMC3517865  PMID: 23221803
9.  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
10.  Abundant and Diverse Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat Spacers in Clostridium difficile Strains and Prophages Target Multiple Phage Types within This Pathogen 
mBio  2014;5(5):e01045-13.
Clostridium difficile is an important human-pathogenic bacterium causing antibiotic-associated nosocomial infections worldwide. Mobile genetic elements and bacteriophages have helped shape C. difficile genome evolution. In many bacteria, phage infection may be controlled by a form of bacterial immunity called the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR-associated (CRISPR/Cas) system. This uses acquired short nucleotide sequences (spacers) to target homologous sequences (protospacers) in phage genomes. C. difficile carries multiple CRISPR arrays, and in this paper we examine the relationships between the host- and phage-carried elements of the system. We detected multiple matches between spacers and regions in 31 C. difficile phage and prophage genomes. A subset of the spacers was located in prophage-carried CRISPR arrays. The CRISPR spacer profiles generated suggest that related phages would have similar host ranges. Furthermore, we show that C. difficile strains of the same ribotype could either have similar or divergent CRISPR contents. Both synonymous and nonsynonymous mutations in the protospacer sequences were identified, as well as differences in the protospacer adjacent motif (PAM), which could explain how phages escape this system. This paper illustrates how the distribution and diversity of CRISPR spacers in C. difficile, and its prophages, could modulate phage predation for this pathogen and impact upon its evolution and pathogenicity.
Clostridium difficile is a significant bacterial human pathogen which undergoes continual genome evolution, resulting in the emergence of new virulent strains. Phages are major facilitators of genome evolution in other bacterial species, and we use sequence analysis-based approaches in order to examine whether the CRISPR/Cas system could control these interactions across divergent C. difficile strains. The presence of spacer sequences in prophages that are homologous to phage genomes raises an extra level of complexity in this predator-prey microbial system. Our results demonstrate that the impact of phage infection in this system is widespread and that the CRISPR/Cas system is likely to be an important aspect of the evolutionary dynamics in C. difficile.
PMCID: PMC4173771  PMID: 25161187
11.  CRISPRmap: an automated classification of repeat conservation in prokaryotic adaptive immune systems 
Nucleic Acids Research  2013;41(17):8034-8044.
Central to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR)-Cas systems are repeated RNA sequences that serve as Cas-protein–binding templates. Classification is based on the architectural composition of associated Cas proteins, considering repeat evolution is essential to complete the picture. We compiled the largest data set of CRISPRs to date, performed comprehensive, independent clustering analyses and identified a novel set of 40 conserved sequence families and 33 potential structure motifs for Cas-endoribonucleases with some distinct conservation patterns. Evolutionary relationships are presented as a hierarchical map of sequence and structure similarities for both a quick and detailed insight into the diversity of CRISPR-Cas systems. In a comparison with Cas-subtypes, I-C, I-E, I-F and type II were strongly coupled and the remaining type I and type III subtypes were loosely coupled to repeat and Cas1 evolution, respectively. Subtypes with a strong link to CRISPR evolution were almost exclusive to bacteria; nevertheless, we identified rare examples of potential horizontal transfer of I-C and I-E systems into archaeal organisms. Our easy-to-use web server provides an automated assignment of newly sequenced CRISPRs to our classification system and enables more informed choices on future hypotheses in CRISPR-Cas research:
PMCID: PMC3783184  PMID: 23863837
12.  Crass: identification and reconstruction of CRISPR from unassembled metagenomic data 
Nucleic Acids Research  2013;41(10):e105.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) constitute a bacterial and archaeal adaptive immune system that protect against bacteriophage (phage). Analysis of CRISPR loci reveals the history of phage infections and provides a direct link between phage and their hosts. All current tools for CRISPR identification have been developed to analyse completed genomes and are not well suited to the analysis of metagenomic data sets, where CRISPR loci are difficult to assemble owing to their repetitive structure and population heterogeneity. Here, we introduce a new algorithm, Crass, which is designed to identify and reconstruct CRISPR loci from raw metagenomic data without the need for assembly or prior knowledge of CRISPR in the data set. CRISPR in assembled data are often fragmented across many contigs/scaffolds and do not fully represent the population heterogeneity of CRISPR loci. Crass identified substantially more CRISPR in metagenomes previously analysed using assembly-based approaches. Using Crass, we were able to detect CRISPR that contained spacers with sequence homology to phage in the system, which would not have been identified using other approaches. The increased sensitivity, specificity and speed of Crass will facilitate comprehensive analysis of CRISPRs in metagenomic data sets, increasing our understanding of phage-host interactions and co-evolution within microbial communities.
PMCID: PMC3664793  PMID: 23511966
13.  Evolutionary Dynamics of Clustered Irregularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat Systems in the Ocean Metagenome ▿  
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) form a recently characterized type of prokaryotic antiphage defense system. The phage-host interactions involving CRISPRs have been studied in experiments with selected bacterial or archaeal species and, computationally, in completely sequenced genomes. However, these studies do not allow one to take prokaryotic population diversity and phage-host interaction dynamics into account. This gap can be filled by using metagenomic data: in particular, the largest existing data set, generated from the Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling expedition. The application of three publicly available CRISPR recognition programs to the Global Ocean metagenome produced a large proportion of false-positive results. To address this problem, a filtering procedure was designed. It resulted in about 200 reliable CRISPR cassettes, which were then studied in detail. The repeat consensuses were clustered into several stable classes that differed from the existing classification. Short fragments of DNA similar to the cassette spacers were more frequently present in the same geographical location than in other locations (P, <0.0001). We developed a catalogue of elementary CRISPR-forming events and reconstructed the likely evolutionary history of cassettes that had common spacers. Metagenomic collections allow for relatively unbiased analysis of phage-host interactions and CRISPR evolution. The results of this study demonstrate that CRISPR cassettes retain the memory of the local virus population at a particular ocean location. CRISPR evolution may be described using a limited vocabulary of elementary events that have a natural biological interpretation.
PMCID: PMC2849227  PMID: 20118362
14.  Type I-E CRISPR-Cas Systems Discriminate Target from Non-Target DNA through Base Pairing-Independent PAM Recognition 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(9):e1003742.
Discriminating self and non-self is a universal requirement of immune systems. Adaptive immune systems in prokaryotes are centered around repetitive loci called CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat), into which invader DNA fragments are incorporated. CRISPR transcripts are processed into small RNAs that guide CRISPR-associated (Cas) proteins to invading nucleic acids by complementary base pairing. However, to avoid autoimmunity it is essential that these RNA-guides exclusively target invading DNA and not complementary DNA sequences (i.e., self-sequences) located in the host's own CRISPR locus. Previous work on the Type III-A CRISPR system from Staphylococcus epidermidis has demonstrated that a portion of the CRISPR RNA-guide sequence is involved in self versus non-self discrimination. This self-avoidance mechanism relies on sensing base pairing between the RNA-guide and sequences flanking the target DNA. To determine if the RNA-guide participates in self versus non-self discrimination in the Type I-E system from Escherichia coli we altered base pairing potential between the RNA-guide and the flanks of DNA targets. Here we demonstrate that Type I-E systems discriminate self from non-self through a base pairing-independent mechanism that strictly relies on the recognition of four unchangeable PAM sequences. In addition, this work reveals that the first base pair between the guide RNA and the PAM nucleotide immediately flanking the target sequence can be disrupted without affecting the interference phenotype. Remarkably, this indicates that base pairing at this position is not involved in foreign DNA recognition. Results in this paper reveal that the Type I-E mechanism of avoiding self sequences and preventing autoimmunity is fundamentally different from that employed by Type III-A systems. We propose the exclusive targeting of PAM-flanked sequences to be termed a target versus non-target discrimination mechanism.
Author Summary
CRISPR loci and their associated genes form a diverse set of adaptive immune systems that are widespread among prokaryotes. In these systems, the CRISPR-associated genes (cas) encode for proteins that capture fragments of invading DNA and integrate these sequences between repeat sequences of the host's CRISPR locus. This information is used upon re-infection to degrade invader genomes. Storing invader sequences in host genomes necessitates a mechanism to differentiate between invader sequences on invader genomes and invader sequences on the host genome. CRISPR-Cas of Staphylococcus epidermidis (Type III-A system) is inhibited when invader sequences are flanked by repeat sequences, and this prevents targeting of the CRISPR locus on the host genome. Here we demonstrate that Escherichia coli CRISPR-Cas (Type I-E system) is not inhibited by repeat sequences. Instead, this system is specifically activated by the presence of bona fide Protospacer Adjacent Motifs (PAMs) in the target. PAMs are conserved sequences adjoining invader sequences on the invader genome, and these sequences are never adjacent to invader sequences within host CRISPR loci. PAM recognition is not affected by base pairing potential of the target with the crRNA. As such, the Type I-E system lacks the ability to specifically recognize self DNA.
PMCID: PMC3764190  PMID: 24039596
15.  An Evolutionary Link between Natural Transformation and CRISPR Adaptive Immunity 
mBio  2012;3(5):e00309-12.
Natural transformation by competent bacteria is a primary means of horizontal gene transfer; however, evidence that competence drives bacterial diversity and evolution has remained elusive. To test this theory, we used a retrospective comparative genomic approach to analyze the evolutionary history of Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, a bacterial species with both competent and noncompetent sister strains. Through comparative genomic analyses, we reveal that competence is evolutionarily linked to genomic diversity and speciation. Competence loss occurs frequently during evolution and is followed by the loss of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs), bacterial adaptive immune systems that protect against parasitic DNA. Relative to noncompetent strains, competent bacteria have larger genomes containing multiple rearrangements. In contrast, noncompetent bacterial genomes are extremely stable but paradoxically susceptible to infective DNA elements, which contribute to noncompetent strain genetic diversity. Moreover, incomplete noncompetent strain CRISPR immune systems are enriched for self-targeting elements, which suggests that the CRISPRs have been co-opted for bacterial gene regulation, similar to eukaryotic microRNAs derived from the antiviral RNA interference pathway.
The human microbiome is rich with thousands of diverse bacterial species. One mechanism driving this diversity is horizontal gene transfer by natural transformation, whereby naturally competent bacteria take up environmental DNA and incorporate new genes into their genomes. Competence is theorized to accelerate evolution; however, attempts to test this theory have proved difficult. Through genetic analyses of the human periodontal pathogen Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, we have discovered an evolutionary connection between competence systems promoting gene acquisition and CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), adaptive immune systems that protect bacteria against genetic parasites. We show that competent A. actinomycetemcomitans strains have numerous redundant CRISPR immune systems, while noncompetent bacteria have lost their CRISPR immune systems because of inactivating mutations. Together, the evolutionary data linking the evolution of competence and CRISPRs reveals unique mechanisms promoting genetic heterogeneity and the rise of new bacterial species, providing insight into complex mechanisms underlying bacterial diversity in the human body.
PMCID: PMC3484387  PMID: 23033473
16.  CRISPR Distribution within the Escherichia coli Species Is Not Suggestive of Immunity-Associated Diversifying Selection ▿ †  
Journal of Bacteriology  2011;193(10):2460-2467.
In order to get further insights into the role of the clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) in Escherichia coli, we analyzed the CRISPR diversity in a collection of 290 strains, in the phylogenetic framework of the strains represented by multilocus sequence typing (MLST). The set included 263 natural E. coli isolates exposed to various environments and isolated over a 20-year period from humans and animals, as well as 27 fully sequenced strains. Our analyses confirm that there are two largely independent pairs of CRISPR loci (CRISPR1 and -2 and CRISPR3 and -4), each associated with a different type of cas genes (Ecoli and Ypest, respectively), but that each pair of CRISPRs has similar dynamics. Strikingly, the major phylogenetic group B2 is almost devoid of CRISPRs. The majority of genomes analyzed lack Ypest cas genes and contain CRISPR3 with spacers matching Ypest cas genes. The analysis of relatedness between strains in terms of spacer repertoire and the MLST tree shows a pattern where closely related strains (MLST phylogenetic distance of <0.005 corresponding to at least hundreds of thousands of years) often exhibit identical CRISPRs while more distantly related strains (MLST distance of >0.01) exhibit completely different CRISPRs. This suggests rare but radical turnover of spacers in CRISPRs rather than CRISPR gradual change. We found no link between the presence, size, or content of CRISPRs and the lifestyle of the strains. Our data suggest that, within the E. coli species, CRISPRs do not have the expected characteristics of a classical immune system.
PMCID: PMC3133152  PMID: 21421763
17.  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
18.  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
19.  Evolution and classification of the CRISPR-Cas systems 
Nature Reviews. Microbiology  2011;9(6):467-477.
The CRISPR–Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats–CRISPR-associated proteins) modules are adaptive immunity systems that are present in many archaea and bacteria. These defence systems are encoded by operons that have an extraordinarily diverse architecture and a high rate of evolution for both the cas genes and the unique spacer content. Here, we provide an updated analysis of the evolutionary relationships between CRISPR–Cas systems and Cas proteins. Three major types of CRISPR–Cas system are delineated, with a further division into several subtypes and a few chimeric variants. Given the complexity of the genomic architectures and the extremely dynamic evolution of the CRISPR–Cas systems, a unified classification of these systems should be based on multiple criteria. Accordingly, we propose a `polythetic' classification that integrates the phylogenies of the most common cas genes, the sequence and organization of the CRISPR repeats and the architecture of the CRISPR–cas loci.
PMCID: PMC3380444  PMID: 21552286
20.  Nasty Viruses, Costly Plasmids, Population Dynamics, and the Conditions for Establishing and Maintaining CRISPR-Mediated Adaptive Immunity in Bacteria 
PLoS Genetics  2010;6(10):e1001171.
Clustered, Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) abound in the genomes of almost all archaebacteria and nearly half the eubacteria sequenced. Through a genetic interference mechanism, bacteria with CRISPR regions carrying copies of the DNA of previously encountered phage and plasmids abort the replication of phage and plasmids with these sequences. Thus it would seem that protection against infecting phage and plasmids is the selection pressure responsible for establishing and maintaining CRISPR in bacterial populations. But is it? To address this question and provide a framework and hypotheses for the experimental study of the ecology and evolution of CRISPR, I use mathematical models of the population dynamics of CRISPR-encoding bacteria with lytic phage and conjugative plasmids. The results of the numerical (computer simulation) analysis of the properties of these models with parameters in the ranges estimated for Escherichia coli and its phage and conjugative plasmids indicate: (1) In the presence of lytic phage there are broad conditions where bacteria with CRISPR-mediated immunity will have an advantage in competition with non-CRISPR bacteria with otherwise higher Malthusian fitness. (2) These conditions for the existence of CRISPR are narrower when there is envelope resistance to the phage. (3) While there are situations where CRISPR-mediated immunity can provide bacteria an advantage in competition with higher Malthusian fitness bacteria bearing deleterious conjugative plasmids, the conditions for this to obtain are relatively narrow and the intensity of selection favoring CRISPR weak. The parameters of these models can be independently estimated, the assumption behind their construction validated, and the hypotheses generated from the analysis of their properties tested in experimental populations of bacteria with lytic phage and conjugative plasmids. I suggest protocols for estimating these parameters and outline the design of experiments to evaluate the validity of these models and test these hypotheses.
Author Summary
CRISPR is the acronym for the adaptive immune system that has been found in almost all archaebacteria and nearly half the eubacteria examined. Unlike the other defenses bacteria have for protection from phage and other deleterious DNAs, CRISPR has the virtues of specificity, memory, and the capacity to abort infections with a virtually indefinite diversity of deleterious DNAs. In this report, mathematical models of the population dynamics of bacteria, phage, and plasmids are used to determine the conditions under which CRISPR can become established and will be maintained in bacterial populations and the contribution of this adaptive immune system to the ecology and (co)evolution of bacteria and bacteriophage. The models predict realistic and broad conditions under which bacteria bearing CRISPR regions can invade and be maintained in populations of higher fitness bacteria confronted with bacteriophage and narrower conditions when the confrontation is with competitors carrying conjugative plasmids. The models predict that CRISPR can facilitate long-term co-evolutionary arms races between phage and bacteria and between phage- rather than resource-limited bacterial communities. The parameters of these models can be independently estimated, the assumptions behind their construction validated, and the hypotheses generated from the analysis of their properties tested with experimental populations of bacteria.
PMCID: PMC2965746  PMID: 21060859
21.  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
22.  The CRISPRdb database and tools to display CRISPRs and to generate dictionaries of spacers and repeats 
BMC Bioinformatics  2007;8:172.
In Archeae and Bacteria, the repeated elements called CRISPRs for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats" are believed to participate in the defence against viruses. Short sequences called spacers are stored in-between repeated elements. In the current model, motifs comprising spacers and repeats may target an invading DNA and lead to its degradation through a proposed mechanism similar to RNA interference. Analysis of intra-species polymorphism shows that new motifs (one spacer and one repeated element) are added in a polarised fashion. Although their principal characteristics have been described, a lot remains to be discovered on the way CRISPRs are created and evolve. As new genome sequences become available it appears necessary to develop automated scanning tools to make available CRISPRs related information and to facilitate additional investigations.
We have produced a program, CRISPRFinder, which identifies CRISPRs and extracts the repeated and unique sequences. Using this software, a database is constructed which is automatically updated monthly from newly released genome sequences. Additional tools were created to allow the alignment of flanking sequences in search for similarities between different loci and to build dictionaries of unique sequences. To date, almost six hundred CRISPRs have been identified in 475 published genomes. Two Archeae out of thirty-seven and about half of Bacteria do not possess a CRISPR. Fine analysis of repeated sequences strongly supports the current view that new motifs are added at one end of the CRISPR adjacent to the putative promoter.
It is hoped that availability of a public database, regularly updated and which can be queried on the web will help in further dissecting and understanding CRISPR structure and flanking sequences evolution. Subsequent analyses of the intra-species CRISPR polymorphism will be facilitated by CRISPRFinder and the dictionary creator. CRISPRdb is accessible at
PMCID: PMC1892036  PMID: 17521438
23.  Programmable Removal of Bacterial Strains by Use of Genome-Targeting CRISPR-Cas Systems 
mBio  2014;5(1):e00928-13.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas (CRISPR-associated) systems in bacteria and archaea employ CRISPR RNAs to specifically recognize the complementary DNA of foreign invaders, leading to sequence-specific cleavage or degradation of the target DNA. Recent work has shown that the accidental or intentional targeting of the bacterial genome is cytotoxic and can lead to cell death. Here, we have demonstrated that genome targeting with CRISPR-Cas systems can be employed for the sequence-specific and titratable removal of individual bacterial strains and species. Using the type I-E CRISPR-Cas system in Escherichia coli as a model, we found that this effect could be elicited using native or imported systems and was similarly potent regardless of the genomic location, strand, or transcriptional activity of the target sequence. Furthermore, the specificity of targeting with CRISPR RNAs could readily distinguish between even highly similar strains in pure or mixed cultures. Finally, varying the collection of delivered CRISPR RNAs could quantitatively control the relative number of individual strains within a mixed culture. Critically, the observed selectivity and programmability of bacterial removal would be virtually impossible with traditional antibiotics, bacteriophages, selectable markers, or tailored growth conditions. Once delivery challenges are addressed, we envision that this approach could offer a novel means to quantitatively control the composition of environmental and industrial microbial consortia and may open new avenues for the development of “smart” antibiotics that circumvent multidrug resistance and differentiate between pathogenic and beneficial microorganisms.
Controlling the composition of microbial populations is a critical aspect in medicine, biotechnology, and environmental cycles. While different antimicrobial strategies, such as antibiotics, antimicrobial peptides, and lytic bacteriophages, offer partial solutions, what remains elusive is a generalized and programmable strategy that can distinguish between even closely related microorganisms and that allows for fine control over the composition of a microbial population. This study demonstrates that RNA-directed immune systems in bacteria and archaea called CRISPR-Cas systems can provide such a strategy. These systems can be employed to selectively and quantitatively remove individual bacterial strains based purely on sequence information, creating opportunities in the treatment of multidrug-resistant infections, the control of industrial fermentations, and the study of microbial consortia.
PMCID: PMC3903277  PMID: 24473129
24.  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
25.  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

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