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New gene-editing system precisely inserts large DNA sequences into cellular DNA

A team led by researchers from Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, has characterized and engineered a new gene-editing system that can precisely and efficiently insert large DNA sequences into a genome. The system, harnessed from cyanobacteria and called CRISPR-associated transposase (CAST), allows efficient introduction of DNA while reducing the potential error-prone steps in the process — adding key capabilities to gene-editing technology and addressing a long-sought goal for precision gene editing.

Precise insertion of DNA has the potential to treat a large swath of genetic diseases by integrating new DNA into the genome while disabling the disease-related sequence. To accomplish this in cells, researchers have typically used CRISPR enzymes to cut the genome at the site of the deleterious sequence, and then relied on the cell’s own repair machinery to stitch the old and new DNA elements together. However, this approach has many limitations.

Using Escherichia coli bacteria, the researchers have now demonstrated that CAST can be programmed to efficiently insert new DNA at a designated site, with minimal editing errors and without relying on the cell’s own repair machinery. The system holds potential for much more efficient gene insertion compared to previous technologies, according to the team.

The researchers are working to apply this editing platform in eukaryotic organisms, including plant and animal cells, for precision research and therapeutic applications.

The team molecularly characterized and harnessed CAST from two cyanobacteria, Scytonema hofmanni and Anabaena cylindrica, and additionally revealed a new way that some CRISPR systems perform in nature: not to protect bacteria from viruses, but to facilitate the spread of transposon DNA.

The work, appearing in Science, was led by first author Jonathan Strecker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute; graduate student Alim Ladha at MIT; and senior author Feng Zhang, a core institute member at the Broad Institute, investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, and an associate professor at MIT, with joint appointments in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering. Collaborators include Eugene Koonin at the National Institutes of Health.

Read more at the Broad Institute (Karen Zusi)

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