WEAPONS OF MASS EVOLUTION
It is the dazzling star of the biotech world: a powerful new tool that can deftly and precisely alter the structure of DNA. It promises cures for diseases, sturdier crops, malaria-resistant mosquitoes and more. Frenzy over the technique — known as CRISPR/Cas9 — is in full swing. Every week, new CRISPR findings are unfurled in scientific journals. In the courts, universities fight over patents. The media report on the breakthroughs as well as the ethics of this game changer almost daily.
But there is a less sequins-and-glitter side to CRISPR that’s just as alluring to anyone thirsty to understand the natural world. The biology behind CRISPR technology comes from a battle that has been raging for eons, out of sight and yet all around us (and on us, and in us).
The CRISPR editing tool has its origins in microbes — bacteria and archaea that live in obscene numbers everywhere from undersea vents to the snot in the human nose. For billions of years, these single-celled organisms have been at odds with the viruses — known as phages — that attack them, invaders so plentiful that a single drop of seawater can hold 10 million. And natural CRISPR systems (there are many) play a big part in this tussle. They act as gatekeepers, essentially cataloging viruses that get into cells. If a virus shows up again, the cell — and its offspring — can recognize and destroy it. Studying this system will teach biologists much about ecology, disease and the overall workings of life on Earth.
But moving from the simple, textbook story into real life is messy. In the few years since the defensive function of CRISPR systems was first appreciated, microbiologists have busied themselves collecting samples, conducting experiments and crunching reams of DNA data to try to understand what the systems do. From that has come much elegant physiology, a mass of complexity, surprises aplenty — and more than a little mystery.
The biology is complicated, and its basic nuts and bolts took some figuring out. There are two parts to CRISPR/Cas systems: the CRISPR bit and the Cas bit. The CRISPR bit — or “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” — was stumbled on in the late 1980s and 1990s. Scientists then slowly pieced the story together by studying microbes that thrive in animals’ guts and in salt marshes, that cause the plague and that are used to make delicious yogurt and cheese.
None of the scientists knew what they were dealing with at first. They saw stretches of DNA with a characteristic pattern: short lengths of repeated sequence separated by other DNA sequences now known as spacers. Each spacer was unique. Because the roster of spacers could differ from one cell to the next in a given microbe species, an early realization was that these differences could be useful for forensic “typing” — investigators could tell whether food poisoning cases were linked, or if someone had stolen a company’s yogurt starter culture.
Bacteria use CRISPR/Cas as a form of immunity or self-defense against invaders. A bacterium builds a library of genetic material from past invaders so that, if the same invader attacks again, the bacterium and its offspring can disable it.
But curious findings piled up. Some of those spacers, it turned out, matched the DNA of phages. In a flurry of reports in 2005, scientists showed, to name one example, that strains of the lactic acid bacterium Streptococcus thermophilus contained spacers that matched genetic material of phages known to infect Streptococcus. And the more spacers a strain had, the more resistant it was to attack by phages.
This began to look a lot like learned or adaptive immunity, akin to our own antibody system: After exposure to a specific threat, your immune system remembers and you are thereafter resistant to that threat. In a classic experiment published in Science in 2007, researchers at the food company Danisco showed it was so. They could see new spacers added when a phage infected a culture of S. thermophilus. Afterward, the bacterium was immune to the phage. They could artificially engineer a phage spacer into the CRISPR DNA and see resistance emerge; when they took the spacer away, immunity was lost.
This was handy intel for an industry that could find whole vats of yogurt-making bacteria wiped out by phage infestations. It was an exciting time scientifically and commercially, says Rodolphe Barrangou of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who did a lot of the Danisco work. “It was not just discovering a cool system, but also uncovering a powerful phage-resistance technology for the dairy industry,” he says.
The second part of the CRISPR/Cas system is the Cas bit: a set of genes located near the cluster of CRISPR spacers. The DNA sequences of these genes strongly suggested that they carried instructions for proteins that interact with DNA or RNA in some fashion — sticking to it, cutting it, copying it, unraveling it. When researchers inactivated one Cas gene or another, they saw immunity falter. Clearly, the two bits of the system — CRISPR and Cas — were a team.
It took many more experiments to get to today’s basic model of how CRISPR/Cas systems fight phages — and not just phages. Other types of foreign DNA can get into microbes, including circular rings called plasmids that shuttle from cell to cell and DNA pieces called transposable elements, which jump around within genomes. CRISPRs can fend off these intruders, as well as keep a microbe’s genome in tidy order.
The process works like this: A virus injects its genetic material into the cell. Sensing this danger, the cell selects a little strip of that genetic material and adds it to the spacers in the CRISPR cluster. This step, known as immunization or adaptation, creates a list of encounters a cell has had with viruses, plasmids or other foreign bits of DNA over time — neatly lined up in reverse chronological order, newest to oldest.
Older spacers eventually get shed, but a CRISPR cluster can grow to be long — the record holder to date is 587 spacers in Haliangium ochraceum, a salt-loving microbe isolated from a piece of seaweed. “It’s like looking at the last 600 shots you had in your arm,” says Barrangou. “Think about that.”
New spacer in place, the microbe is now immunized. Later comes targeting. If that same phage enters the cell again, it’s recognized. The cell has made RNA copies of the relevant spacer, which bind to the matching spot on the genome of the invading phage. That “guide RNA” leads Cas proteins to target and snip the phage DNA, defanging the intruder.
Scientists have divided the array of known CRISPR systems into five types and 16 subtypes based on DNA sequence data. The distribution of types differs in archaea and bacteria.
Researchers now know there are a confetti-storm of different CRISPR systems, and the list continues to grow. Some are simple — such as the CRISPR/Cas9 system that’s been adapted for gene editing in more complex creatures (SN: 4/15/17, p. 16) — and some are elaborate, with many protein workhorses deployed to get the job done.
Those who are sleuthing the evolution of CRISPR systems are deciphering a complex story. The part of the CRISPR toolbox involved in immunity (adding spacers after phages inject their genetic material) seems to have originated from a specific type of transposable element called a casposon. But the part responsible for targeting has multiple origins — in some cases, it’s another type of transposable element. In others, it’s a mystery.
Given the power of CRISPR systems to ward off foes, one might think every respectable microbe out there in the soils, vents, lakes, guts and nostrils of this planet would have one. Not so.
Numbers are far from certain, partly because science hasn’t come close to identifying all the world’s microbes, let alone probe them all for CRISPRs. But the scads of microbial genetic data accrued so far throw up interesting trends.
Tallies suggest that CRISPR systems are far more prevalent in known archaea than in known bacteria — such systems exist in roughly 90 percent of archaea and about…
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