Bacterial CRISPR/Cas DNA endonucleases: A revolutionary technology that could dramatically impact viral research and treatment.
CRISPR/Cas systems mediate bacterial adaptive immune responses that evolved to protect bacteria from bacteriophage and other horizontally transmitted genetic elements. Several CRISPR/Cas systems exist but the simplest variant, referred to as Type II, has a single effector DNA endonuclease, called Cas9, which is guided to its viral DNA target by two small RNAs, the crRNA and the tracrRNA. Initial efforts to adapt the CRISPR/Cas system for DNA editing in mammalian cells, which focused on the Cas9 protein from Streptococcus pyogenes (Spy), demonstrated that Spy Cas9 can be directed to DNA targets in mammalian cells by tracrRNA:crRNA fusion transcripts called single guide RNAs (sgRNA). Upon binding, Cas9 induces DNA cleavage leading to mutagenesis as a result of error prone non-homologous end joining (NHEJ). Recently, the Spy Cas9 system has been adapted for high throughput screening of genes in human cells for their relevance to a particular phenotype and, more generally, for the targeted inactivation of specific genes, in cell lines and in vivo in a number of model organisms. The latter aim seems likely to be greatly enhanced by the recent development of Cas9 proteins from bacterial species such as Neisseria meningitidis and Staphyloccus aureus that are small enough to be expressed using adeno-associated (AAV)-based vectors that can be readily prepared at very high titers. The evolving Cas9-based DNA editing systems therefore appear likely to not only impact virology by allowing researchers to screen for human genes that affect the replication of pathogenic human viruses of all types but also to derive clonal human cell lines that lack individual gene products that either facilitate or restrict viral replication. Moreover, high titer AAV-based vectors offer the possibility of directly targeting DNA viruses that infect discrete sites in the human body, such as herpes simplex virus and hepatitis B virus, with the hope that the entire population of viral DNA genomes might be destroyed. In conclusion, we believe that the continued rapid evolution of CRISPR/Cas technology will soon have a major, possibly revolutionary, impact on the field of virology.
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