Within the last decade, scientists have adapted CRISPR systems from microbes into gene editing technology, a precise and programmable system for modifying DNA. Now, scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have discovered a new class of programmable DNA modifying systems called OMEGAs (Obligate Mobile Element Guided Activity), which may naturally be involved in shuffling small bits of DNA throughout bacterial genomes.
These ancient DNA-cutting enzymes are guided to their targets by small pieces of RNA. While they originated in bacteria, they have now been engineered to work in human cells, suggesting they could be useful in the development of gene editing therapies.
The research was led by McGovern investigator Feng Zhang, who is James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a core institute member of the Broad Institute. Zhang’s team has been exploring natural diversity in search of new molecular systems that can be rationally programmed. “We are super excited about the discovery of these widespread programmable enzymes, which have been hiding under our noses all along,” says Zhang. “These results suggest the tantalizing possibility that there are many more programmable systems that await discovery and development as useful technologies.”
The team’s experiments showed that two other classes of small proteins known as IsrBs and TnpBs, one of the most abundant genes in bacteria, also use ωRNAs that act as guides to direct the cleavage of DNA.
IscB, IsrB, and TnpB are found in mobile genetic elements called transposons. Graduate student Han Altae-Tran, co-first author on the paper, explains that each time these transposons move, they create a new guide RNA, allowing the enzyme they encode to cut somewhere else.
It’s not clear how bacteria benefit from this genomic shuffling — or whether they do at all. Transposons are often thought of as selfish bits of DNA, concerned only with their own mobility and preservation, Kannan says. But if hosts can “co-opt” these systems and repurpose them, hosts may gain new abilities, as with CRISPR systems which confer adaptive immunity.
Read the complete research at www.broadinstitute.org.
Altae-Tran H, Kannan S, et al. The widespread IS200/605 transposon family encodes diverse programmable RNA-guided endonucleases. Science. Online September 9, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/science.abj685