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Tag: off-targets

Clearly compensating

Clearly compensating

Genetic compensation by transcriptional adaptation is a process whereby knocking out a gene (e.g by CRISPR or TALEN) results in the deregulation of genes that make up for the loss of gene function.

A 2015 study by Rossi et al. (discussed previously) alerted researchers that CRISPR/TALEN knock-out experiments may be subject to such effects.

Genetic adaption or compensation had been well known to mouse researchers creating knock-out lines.  In fact, one of our company founders also ran into this when trying to confirm an RNAi phenotype in a knock-out mouse line.  The knock-out mice, though not completely healthy, did not confirm the RNAi phenotype.

A paper published a couple years before the Rossi paper also showed clearly that knock-outs can create off-target effects via transcriptional adaptation.

Hall et al. showed with an siRNA screen that the centrosomal protein Azi1 was required for ciliogenesis in mouse fibroblasts, confirming previous work in zebrafish and fly.

Their Azi1 siRNA targeted the 3′ UTR, and they were able to rescue the phenotype with a plasmid expressing just the CDS (bar at far right), confirming that their phenotype was due to on-target knockdown:

However, knock-out mouse embryonic fibroblast cells (created by gene trapping) did not show any differences in in the number of cilia, centrosomes, or centrioles compared to wildtype (+/+ is wild type, Gt/Gt is the homozygous knock-out):

The one phenotypic difference they observed was that male knock-out mice were infertile, due to defective formation of sperm flagella.  Female mice had normal fertility.  Both were compensating, but only one showed a visible phenotype.

The authors note the benefits of RNAi in comparison to knock-out screening:

Discrepancies between the phenotypic severity observed with siRNA knock-down versus genetic deletion has previously been attributed to the acute nature of knock-down, allowing less time for compensation to occur

The excitement surrounding CRISPR should not diminish the continued value of RNAi screening.

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Pooling only 4 siRNAs increases off-target effects

Pooling only 4 siRNAs increases off-target effects

In a previous post, we showed how siRNA pools with small numbers of siRNAs can exacerbate off-target effects.

Low-complexity pools (with 4 siRNAs per gene) should thus lead to overall stronger off-target effects than single siRNAs.

This phenomenon was addressed in a bioinformatics paper a few years back.  The authors created a model to predict gene phenotypes based on the combined on-target and off-target effects of siRNAs.

The siRNAs were screened either individually (Ambion and Qiagen), or in pools of four (Dharmacon siGENOME), in 3 different batcterial-infection assays (B. abortus, B. henselae, and S. typhimurium).

The model assumed that each siRNA silenced its on-target gene to the same level.  For off-target silencing, they used the predictions from TargetScan, a program for calculating seed-based knockdown by miRNAs or siRNAs.

In order to assess model quality, they checked how similar the gene phenotype predictions were when using different reagents types in the same pathogen-infection screen.

The following figure shows the rank-biased overlap (a measure of how similar lists are with regards to top- and bottom-ranked items), when estimating siGENOME off-target knockdown in one of 2 ways:

A) using the maximum TargetScan score for any of the 4 siRNAs in the siGENOME pool

B) using the mean TargetScan score for the 4 siRNAs

If low-complexity pooling increases the degree of off-target effects, we would expect the maximum TargetScan score to produce better model concordance.

And that is what the authors found.  (the two plots show the rank-biased overlap for the top and bottom of the phenotype ranked lists, respectively)

The off-target effect of a 4-siRNA, low-complexity pool is best described by the strongest off-target effect of any of the individual siRNAs.

As discussed in our NAR paper, pooling a minimum of 15 siRNAs is required to reliably prevent off-target effects.

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Little correlation between Dharmacon siGENOME and ON-TARGETplus reagents

Little correlation between Dharmacon siGENOME and ON-TARGETplus reagents

The most common way to validate hits from Dharmacon siGENOME screens is to test the individual siRNAs from candidate pool hits (siGENOME reagents are low-complexity pools of 4 siRNAs).  In this deconvolution round, we normally see that the individual siRNAs for genes behave very differently and seed effects dominate (discussed here and here).

One could argue that deconvolution is not the correct way to validate candidate hits (even though it’s the method recommended by Dharmacon),  as testing the siRNAs individually will result in seed effects that are suppressed when the siRNAs are pooled.  One problem with this argument is that low-complexity pooling does not get rid of off-target effects (e.g. Fig 5 in this paper), something that is better done via high-complexity pooling.  But assuming it were true, validating with a second Dharmacon pool would be better.

Tejedor et al. (2015) performed a genome-wide Dharmacon siGENOME screen for regulators of Fas/CD95 alternative splicing.  ~1500 genes were identified by a deep-sequencing approach.  ~400 of those were confirmed by high-throughput capillary electrophoresis (HTCE, LabChip).  They then retested those ~400 genes (again by HTCE) using Dharmacon ON-TARGETplus pools.

The following plot shows the values for the siGENOME and ON-TARGETplus pools for the same genes (i.e. each point corresponds to 1 gene).

What’s measured is the percent of splice variants that include exon 6 following siRNA treatment.  That was compared to the values for a plate negative control (untransfected wells) and converted to a robust Z-score.  This is the main readout from the paper.

 

The Pearson correlation improves if the strong outlier at -150 for siGENOME is removed (R = 0.25), while the Spearman correlation is unchanged.

 

We see that a fairly small number of genes are giving reproducibly strong phenotypes (e.g. 13 of 400 have robust Z-scores less than -15 for both siGENOME and ON-TARGETplus reagents).

If we remove those 13 strong hit genes, the correlation approaches zero:

 

Even if the strong outlier for siGENOME is removed, the correlation is still near zero:

 

Although using a second Dharmacon pool removes some of the arbitrariness of defining validated hits (e.g. saying that 3 of 4 siRNAs must exceed a Z-score cut-off of X, or 2 of 4 siRNAs must exceed a Z-score cut-off of Y), the end result is similar:  A few strong  genes show reproducible phenotypes, while many of the strongest screening hits show inconsistent results.  The main problem, off-target effects in the main screen, is not fixed.

postscript

Tejedor et al. say that 200 genes were confirmed by ON-TARGETplus validation.  They consider a gene confirmed if the absolute value of the robust Z-score is greater than 2.  The Z-score is calculated using the median for untransfected plate controls.  I suspect that a significant proportion of randomly selected genes would also have passed this cut-off.

In table S3 (which has the ON-TARGETplus validation results), there are actually only 177 genes (including 2 controls) that meet this cutoff.  The supplementary methods state: Genes for which Z was >2 or <-2 were considered as positive, and a total number of 200 genes were finally selected as high confidence hits.

Which suggests that genes outside the cut-off were chosen to bring the number up to 200.

But if we look at the Excel sheet with the ‘200 hit genes’, it has 200 rows, but only 199 genes.  The header was included in the count.

This type of off-by-one error is probably not that uncommon.  In a case like this, it does not matter so much.

One case where it did matter was in the Duke/Potti scandal.  The forensic bioinformatics work of the heroes of the Duke scandal found that, when trying to reproduce the results from published software, one of the input files caused problems because of an off-by-one error created by a column header.  That was one of many difficulties in reproducing the Potti paper’s results which eventually led to its exposure.

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CRISPR/Cas9 Screening – The “Copy-Number Effect”

CRISPR/Cas9 Screening – The “Copy-Number Effect”

Several CRISPR/Cas9 screens identifying essential genes in cancer cell lines have been performed to date (Shalem et al., 2014, Hart et al., 2015, Kiessling et al., 2016). These typically take the form of pooled screens where sgRNA libraries targeting all genes or subsets of genes are introduced in parallel into Cas9-expressing cells, at a single sgRNA per cell. The sgRNAs exert a negative or positive selection pressure on cells based on their impact on cell viability and proliferation. The most depleted or enriched sgRNA sequences are determined by next-generation sequencing, revealing relevant gene ‘hits’. Very similar to how pooled shRNA screens are performed.

From these screens, several groups have observed a worrying phenomenon: CRISPR gRNAs targeting genomic regions of high copy number amplification showed a striking reduction in cell proliferation/survival. Dr William Hahn’s group at the Dana Farber Institute was one of the first to characterize this in a publication last year involving a CRISPR/Cas9 screen on 33 cancer cell lines looking for essential genes. In total, 123411 unique sgRNAs were used targeting 19050 genes (6 sgRNAs/gene), 1864 miRNAs and 1000 non-targeting negative control sgRNAs.

What they discovered is a little worrying to say the least.

The figure shows two genomic regions in two different cell lines (SU86.86 and HT29). At genomic coordinates highlighted by the red box, 3 tracks are shown. Top, copy number from the Cancer Cell Line Encyclopaedia (CCLE) SNP arrays, red indicating above average ploidy and blue showing below; middle, CRISPR/Cas9 guide scores with purple trend line indicating the mean CRISPR guide score for each CN segment defined from the above track; bottom, RNAi gene-dependency scores. AKT2 and MYC, known driver oncogenes at these loci, respectively, are highlighted in orange. For RNAi data, shRNAs targeting AKT2 used in Project Achilles were not effective in suppressing AKT2 (hence the negative result).

 

Key findings:

  • A striking enrichment of negative CRISPR guide scores (i.e. sgRNAs that reduced cell proliferation/survival) for genes that reside in genomic regions of high copy-number amplification.

 

  • Genes identified in CRISPR that reduced survival, did not have the same effect when disrupted by RNAi in the same cell lines (this RNAi screen was done by the same group but published 2 years before).

 

  • This enrichment was seen also for unexpressed genes, i.e. genes not transcribed. Meaning the reduced survival was not due to loss-of-function of the targeted gene.

 

  • Even for regions with low absolute copy numbers, a significant reduction in survival was observed compared to non-targeting control sgRNAs. Furthermore, the effect was dose-dependent with greater copy number amplifications producing larger negative CRISPR guide scores.

Notably, the correlation between copy number and genes that were scored high on essentiality was also observed when looking at data from other studies (Hart et al., 2015). The “copy number effect” would therefore produce a high number of false positives in CRISPR screens for essential genes in cancer cell lines. The graph above shows just how big an effect this is. Comparing genes identified as essential in a CRISPR screen vs RNAi screen, increasingly essential CRISPR-identified genes were more likely to reside on copy number amplifications (defined as having average sample ploidy > 2). This effect was notably absent for RNAi-derived essential genes.

Aside from false positives, the increased noise due to “copy number effects” also increases false negatives. MET, a gene identified by shRNA screens, for example, failed to be picked out by CRISPR screens as it is located on a chromosome 7 amplicon (7q31) in MKN45 cells (gastric cancer cell line) where all other gRNAs within that amplicon also scored as essential.

The authors go on to explore mechanisms behind the “copy number effect”. They found it was attributed to a DNA damage response stimulated by excessive cutting by Cas9. This response appeared p53-dependent and induced cell cycle arrest at the G2 phase, explaining the anti-proliferative effect. A similar response was seen for promiscuous sgRNAs that cut at multiple sites, with effects being more pronounced when cuts were spread over several chromosomes as opposed to a single chromosome.

How to manage this?

So far, most simply avoid analysing hits where sgRNAs lie at amplified regions or target multiple sites (Wang et al., 2017). However, these regions of copy number amplifications have been implicated in cancer and may contain relevant hits. Several computational methods have therefore recently been developed to correct for “the copy number effect”. Hahn’s group developed a computational algorithm called CERES based on data obtained from CRISPR sgRNA screens in 342 cancer cell lines representing 27 cell lineages.

Novartis also developed a Local Drop Out (LDO) algorithm that corrects obtained data based on examining gRNAs scores at direct genomic neighbours. When multiple neighbouring genes show similar drop out scores, effects are assumed to be due to “copy number effects”. This method has the advantage of not requiring prior knowledge of copy number, however it does require a sufficient density of gRNAs to accurately capture “copy number effects”.  They also had an alternative method, Generalized Additive Model (GAM) where copy number was taken into account.

 

How the CERES Model Works

The Results – copy number dependency is reduced while preserving essentiality of cancer-specific genes such as KRAS

 

A step towards the right direction but the penetrance of this effect still raises some concerns:

  • Although false positives are reduced with these computational methods, it is difficult to recapture false negatives. This is dependent on the gRNA having a stronger phenotype compared to neighbouring gRNAs on the amplicon which is not always the case. The LDO method for example still failed to recapture MET.

 

  • Guide scores can vary with cell line, sgRNA and experimental conditions, making it difficult to apply the same counter-measures to every experiment.

 

  • Given multiple cut sites trigger the same effect, how do we ensure multiple sgRNAs when introduced into a cell are not inducing a similar response? This is difficult to control in pooled screens, and poses a limitation in multiplex screens. Synthetic lethality screens for example with sgRNAs targeting multiple genes, might be subject to a higher false positive rate.

 

  • With even diploid genes (copy number = 2) having statistically significant growth reduction compared to haploid gene loci, the challenge still remains to delineate a true loss-of-function over a non-specific cellular response.

 

  • Negative sgRNA controls have to be carefully selected. From the study, non-targeting controls had little impact on viability compared to most other sgRNAs. Controls targeting non-expressed genes or non-essential loci have been recommended as better controls.

 

  • Lastly, although this effect seems to apply mostly to cancer cell lines that undergo a high rate of gene amplifications, similar effects may extend to polyploid tissues such as the liver.

Hence as always gene function should be determined by a variety of methods. Using RNAi for example to affirm a CRISPR-knockout phenotype would add greater confidence to a hit. To avoid those RNAi-related false positives however, its probably best to use siPOOLs.

 

Source of figures:

Aguirre, A. J., Meyers, R. M., Weir, B. A., Vazquez, F., Zhang, C.-Z., Ben-David, U., … Hahn, W. C. (2016). Genomic Copy Number Dictates a Gene-Independent Cell Response to CRISPR/Cas9 Targeting. Cancer Discovery, 6(8), 914 LP-929.

Meyers, R. M., Bryan, J. G., McFarland, J. M., Weir, B. A., Sizemore, A. E., Xu, H., … Tsherniak, A. (2017). Computational correction of copy-number effect improves specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 essentiality screens in cancer cells. bioRxiv. Retrieved from http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/07/10/160861.abstract

Other relevant sources:

Munoz, D. M., Cassiani, P. J., Li, L., Billy, E., Korn, J. M., Jones, M. D., … Schlabach, M. R. (2016). CRISPR Screens Provide a Comprehensive Assessment of Cancer Vulnerabilities but Generate False-Positive Hits for Highly Amplified Genomic Regions. Cancer Discovery, 6(8), 900 LP-913. Retrieved from http://cancerdiscovery.aacrjournals.org/content/6/8/900.abstract

de Weck, A., Golji, J., Jones, M. D., Korn, J. M., Billy, E., McDonald, E. R., … Kauffmann, A. (2017). Correction of copy number induced false positives in CRISPR screens. bioRxiv. Retrieved from http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/06/23/151985.abstract

 

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siRNA vs shRNA – applications and off-targeting

siRNA vs shRNA – applications and off-targeting

Short interfering RNA (siRNA) and short hairpin RNA (shRNA) are both used in RNAi-mediated gene silencing. In this blogpost, we explore the differences in applications of siRNA and shRNA and compare their capacity for off-targeting.

For a summary of their properties, please refer to Table 1 at the end of  the post.

In what situations should we use siRNA or shRNA?

In terms of application, siRNAs are commonly applied for rapid and transient knockdown of gene expression.

It is performed in cell lines amenable to transfection by liposomes/electroporation and effects typically last from 3-7 days though retransfection can be performed to extend the effect.

The amount of siRNA introduced can be highly controlled and efficiency of gene knockdown is dependent on the levels of siRNA in the cell which is influenced by transfection efficiency and siRNA stability. Knockdown is also influenced by characteristics of the gene. A gene that is highly transcribed for example, may experience less siRNA-mediated downregulation compared to a gene where lesser copies of RNA are produced over time. In addition, a gene which expresses a protein with a very long half-life, may require extended periods of siRNA application to see a knockdown effect.

Due to the transient effect of siRNAs, shRNAs were developed to be used for prolonged knockdown of genes.

As they are introduced by viral vectors, cells that are more difficult to transfect are better targeted with shRNA. Furthermore, promoter-driven expression allows for inducible expression of the shRNA. Depending on the viral vector used – refer to Labome’s post that covers siRNA/shRNA delivery in greater detail – the shRNA may be integrated into the host genome, allowing it to be propagated into daughter cells. This maintains a consistent gene knockdown over several generations. However, knockdown efficiency can decline over time. This is mainly due to varying levels of uptake of the shRNA among cells, with a cell population having lower shRNA expression being over-represented with time.

 

What about RNAi screening?

siRNAs and shRNAs are both used in RNAi screening to identify genes of interest in a studied phenotype. These are performed with siRNA/shRNA libraries that target a large variety of genes. There are two RNAi screening formats commonly used – arrayed and pooled.

siRNAs and shRNAs can both be used in an arrayed screening format. This means that the siRNA(s)/shRNA(s) against each gene is tested in distinct cell populations. Arrayed screens have the advantage of being compatible with various phenotypic readouts and do not suffer from possible reagent cross-talk or challenges associated with deconvoluting data. However, they are more energy and resource-intensive to perform. (See Fig. 2)

The pooled screening format in contrast, applies only with shRNAs. Here, all shRNAs (e.g. a whole-genome shRNA library) are introduced to a single cell population. As low titers of viral vectors are used, each cell in the population is expected to take up one shRNA vector.

With pooled screening, only readouts linked to cell number can be assessed. These include measurements for cell viability or altered expression of a cell surface marker assessed by fluorescence activated-cell sorting. shRNAs targeting genes which impact these readouts are expected to skew the cell population, such that only cells affected by the relevant shRNAs can be identified. This is either through negative selection, where lost cell populations are noted, or positive selection, where cells with certain shRNAs become over-represented.

The resulting cell population is then assessed by PCR, microarray hybridization or next generation sequencing to measure which shRNAs are highly or lowly-represented. The shRNAs are identified usually by means of a DNA barcode present in the vector sequence. Of note, pooled screens take up less resources to perform but require longer assay times to allow for significant changes in the overall cell population to occur.

Fig. 2 Simplified workflow for arrayed and pooled RNAi screening formats

 

Off-target effects with shRNAs?

The use of siRNAs are known to produce several off-target effects but what about shRNAs? Given they are processed the same way as siRNAs, shRNAs are also subject to microRNA-like off-target effects. In addition, because they are expressed from DNA and rely on endogenous machinery to be processed into siRNA, several variations may be introduced not found with introducing siRNA directly. Some potential sources of off-target effects for shRNAs include:

1. Promoter-driven expression. shRNAs are typically controlled with a U6 promoter which drives high levels of transcription via RNA polymerase III. The high shRNA expression levels may saturate endogenous RNAi machinery, contributing to off-target effects. To counter this, shRNAs can be expressed in a context mimicking miRNAs, utilizing RNA polymerase II for transcription instead. This has been found by several groups to reduce the incidence of off-target effects (Grimm et al., 2006, Kampman et al., 2015)

2. Dicer-mediated hairpin processing. shRNAs undergo Dicer-mediated cleavage in the cytosol to remove its hairpin loop. Gu et al., 2012 reported that Dicer cleaves with sufficient heterogeneity to generate multiple sequences. This factor was reported to generate the higher noise levels unique to shRNA screens (Bhinder and Djaballah, 2013). As specificity of Dicer cleavage is influenced by neighbouring loop and bulge structures, care should be taken in shRNA design.

3. Multiple shRNA uptake. During viral transduction, the viral titer is minimized to increase the probability that cells take up a single shRNA vector. However, this does not guarantee that multiple shRNA uptake will not occur. In this event, a combinatorial gene knockdown ensues resulting in a mixed phenotype that may generate false hits.

4. Differences in genomic integration between shRNAs. Varying efficiencies in transfection and genome integration between shRNAs may skew results to over-represent certain shRNAs over others, especially in pooled screens. Furthermore, integration into the host genome may disrupt the function of certain genes, producing more off-targets.

Studies comparing results from siRNA and shRNA screens have found extremely poor overlap, both between and within the reagent-specific screens. Bhinder and Djaballah’s (2013) analysis of results from 30 published RNAi screens (16 siRNA, 14 shRNA) searching for genes that impact cell viability saw no common genes identified across the board. Furthermore, different genes were identified depending on whether the screen used siRNA or shRNA. PLK1 for example, was a prominent hit for siRNA screens but was only marginally represented in shRNA screens. In contrast, KRAS was a top hit among shRNA screens.

Fig. 3 Reagent format of RNAi screens analysed in Bhinder and Djaballah, 2013 Screens were performed either with genome-wide (GW) or focused (FD) siRNA/shRNA libraries. For siRNA screens, Pooled refers to pools of 3 siRNAs applied together compared to Singles where a single siRNA duplex was applied. For shRNA screens, Pooled refers to a pooled format screen (Fig. 2) where ~50, 000 shRNAs were applied to a single cell population. Arrayed refers to arrayed format screen where shRNAs were applied individually (Fig. 2).

Fig. 4 Overlap of hits among genome-wide (left) and focused (right) siRNA screens (Bhinder and Djaballah, 2013) Only 4 common hits detected across the 2 lethal gene lists from genome-wide siRNA screens. In focused siRNA screens, a greater overlap was detected but still limited across the 22 lethal gene lists. PLK1 detected in 9 out of 22 gene lists.

Fig. 5 Overlap of hits among genome-wide (left) and focused (right) shRNA screens (Bhinder and Djaballah, 2013) KRAS was a top hit in shRNA GW screens, appearing in 5 out of 9 lists. In focused shRNA screens, KRAS was present in 15 out of 31 lists. 

Worryingly, an enrichment of gene candidates exclusive to pooled shRNA screens was observed as opposed to arrayed shRNA or siRNA screens. Most of the overlap seen in gene lists (80% global overlaps, 60% after stringent filtering) were specific to pooled shRNA screens. Exclusion of data from pooled shRNA screens would have reduced overlap to a mere 27%. This indicates gene targets obtained from shRNA pooled screens is specific to the technique as opposed to specific gene downregulation.

Furthermore, a greater number of hits were obtained from shRNA screens – 6664 candidates from 40 shRNA gene lists – as opposed to 1525 candidates from 24 siRNA gene lists. This indicates a generally noisier dataset associated with shRNA screens.

Bhinder and Djaballah later performed a head-to-head comparison of an arrayed siRNA and shRNA screen and reported similarly dismal results. Despite using a gain-of-function assay, which tends to yield clearer results, only a 29 hit overlap was seen between siRNA and shRNA libraries which shared 15,068 common genes. Based on a known set of positive controls, siRNAs identified 8 known regulators as opposed to shRNA which only identified 3. Furthermore, predicted siRNA sequences obtained after Dicer-processing of shRNA which corresponded to exactly the same siRNA sequence from the siRNA library yielded different phenotypes. The authors highlight that differential intracellular processing of the shRNA contributes significantly to the discrepancies observed.

It is evident that shRNAs are at risk to greater number of off-target effects than siRNAs. Much care should be taken towards the interpretation of pooled shRNA screens in particular. Secondary validation of gene hits plays an increasingly important role. It is recommended to validate gene hits with siPOOLs (high-complexity, defined siRNA pools) which have a lower off-target profile than single siRNAs or low complexity siRNA pools of 3-4. siPOOL-resistant rescue constructs enable further affirmation that the loss-of-function phenotype is attributed to the target gene. Alternative tools such as compounds, antibodies or gene knockout technologies are also highly recommended.

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Table. 1 Comparison of properties between siRNA and shRNA

siRNA shRNA
Structure 20-25 nucleotide long double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) with 2 nucleotide overhangs at the 3’ end

~57-58 nucleotide long RNA sequence with a dsRNA region linked by non-pairing nucleotides to form a stem-loop structure

Delivery RNA itself with liposome/electroporation-mediated delivery into cells Usually delivered to cells via viral vectors. DNA may be incorporated into host genome depending on viral vector used.
Processing In the cytosol, guide or antisense strand* (shown in blue in Fig. 1) is incorporated into RNA induced silencing complex (RISC). RISC is guided towards RNA transcripts with the complementary sequence to mediate cleavage and subsequent degradation of the transcript.

 

*Note that the sense strand may also load into RISC and mediate off-targeting but incidence of this is reduced by designing siRNA with  appropriate thermodynamic properties (refer to previous blogpost on siRNA design)

In the nucleus, shRNA is transcribed from DNA by either RNA polymerase I or III, depending on the promoter.

Drosha, a member of the ribonuclease III family, processes the RNA transcript of its long flanking single-stranded RNA sequences and the resultant shRNA is exported out of the nucleus by Exportin-5.

 

In the cytosol, the enzyme Dicer cuts off the hairpin loop of the shRNA and releases the functional active siRNA which follows the same downstream processing as siRNAs.

 

Length of expression Varies from 3-7 days. Affected by degradation of siRNA within cell and dilution of effect upon cell division. Expression can be reinstated by re-transfecting the siRNA. If the DNA is stably integrated in the host genome, knock-down is theoretically permanent.
Control of knockdown Easily controlled by varying amount of siRNA introduced. Magnitude of knockdown harder to control as determined by promoter-driven efficiency and shRNA vector uptake. Expression however can be made inducible with Tet-on/off systems.

 

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Unexpected Mutations after CRISPR in vivo editing – post-commentary

Unexpected Mutations after CRISPR in vivo editing – post-commentary

You might have heard or participated in the global discussion over the recently published Nature Commentary that described >1000 off-target mutations in CRISPR-edited mice.

The paper reported a small study involving three mice but gained enough virality online to trigger a significant drop in share prices of companies founded based on CRISPR gene-editing – Editas Medicine, CRISPR Therapeutics and Intellia Therapeutics.

Here is a summary of the study, with respective concerns raised by the scientific community regarding the validity of the findings. These are highlighted *in blue with further explanations below:

  • FVB/NJ mice were used in the study.These mice are a highly inbred strain (F87 on Dec 2002) originating from the NIH but transferred to The Jackson Laboratory for maintenance and sale. They are homozygous for the Pde6brd1 allele, subjecting them to early onset retinal degeneration.

 

  • The same authors previously published a pretty decent paper where they functionally characterized a rescue of the retinal degeneration by correcting what was thought to be a nonsense mutation (Y347X, C>A) at exon7 of the Pde6β subunit. The same “rescued” mice, edited by CRISPR (F03 and F05), along with the control co-housed mouse that did not undergo editing, were used in this subsequent sequencing study. *Concern 1

 

  • The CRISPR mutation was performed by introducing the sgRNA via a pX335 plasmid (which would co-express Cas9D10A nickase) into FVB/NJ zygotes, alongside a single-stranded oligo which acts as a donor to introduce a controlled mutation at the Pde6b. WT Cas9 protein was also introduced. *Concern 2

 

  • DNA was isolated from spleen of the mice and whole genome sequencing was performed with an Illumina HiSeq 2500 sequencer with a 50X coverage for CRISPR-treated mice and 30X coverage for the control mouse.

 

  • The authors used three different algorithms to detect variants – Mutect, Lofreq and Strelka. The number of single nucleotide variants (SNVs) and insertion deletions (indels) detected that were absent in the control mouse are shown below for the two CRISPR-edited mice.

   

Overlap of SNV/indels detected in two CRISPR-edited mice – F03 mouse (blue), F05 mouse (green).

 

  • Each of the variants were filtered against the FVB/NJ genome in the mouse dbSNP database (v138) and also against 36 other mouse strains from the Mouse Genome Project (v3). As none of the variants detected were found in these database genomes, the authors concluded they had to arise through CRISPR-editing. *Concern 3

 

  • Interestingly, the top 50 predicted off-target sites showed no mutations. And in sites where mutations were detected, there was no significant sequence homology against the sgRNA used. The authors conclude in silico modelling fails to predict off-target sites. *Concern 4.

A number of criticisms have been raised regarding the study and the four main concerns highlighted are explained below:

Concern 1: The study only involved three mice, hence is too underpowered to draw any statistically significant conclusions. Further, the choice of control mouse simply being a co-housed mouse (no mention of its background) may fail to capture any genetic alterations induced by the experimental procedure or by genetic drift within a colony.

More appropriate controls may have included a mouse produced with a sham-injected zygote, a mouse where only Cas9 was introduced without an sgRNA, and a mouse with only sgRNA and ssDNA donor.

Parent mice should also have been sequenced to check if variants detected were already in the existing strain.

Concern 2: Cas9 was introduced both as a protein and in a plasmid. Talk about overkill! Though the plasmid form of Cas9 is the nickase version, where 2 sgRNAs are required to produce a double-strand break, having high levels of active Cas9 floating about has been demonstrated to increase the incidence of off-target effects.

Concern 3: Even though the authors filtered the variants found against mouse genome databases, this may not be sufficient to capture the extent of genetic drift that occurs over multiple generations of in-breeding.

Gaetan Burgio wrote that from his experience, the reference genomes found in databases often fail to capture the amount of variants that are specific to every breeding facility. Often large numbers of reference mice (1oo mouse exomes from > 50 founders) have to be sequenced to determine if SNPs were specific to the mouse strain and not induced by the test condition.

Editas and George Church’s group from Harvard also highlighted the high amount of overlap in SNVs/indels between the two CRISPR-edited mice which..

“strongly suggests the vast majority of these mutations were present in the animals of origin. The odds of  the exact nucleotide changes occurring in the exact same position of the exact same gene at the exact same ratios in almost every case are effectively zero.”

Concern 4: Apart from the flaw that only one sgRNA was studied, Church’s group also claim the sgRNA studied had a high off-target profile. This sgRNA would apparently have failed their criteria for use as a therapeutic candidate. The table below shows the number of predicted off-target sites when allowing for 1-3 mismatches from the sgRNA sequence.

Predicted off-target profile of sgRNA used in study
Off-target sites with 1 mismatch 1
Off-target sites with 2 mismatches 1
Off-target sites with 3 mismatches 24

 

What was surprising from the study however, was that despite the high off-targeting potential, mutations were not seen at predicted off-target sites.

The consensus therefore, by both Church’s group and the authors of the study was that one cannot rely on in silico prediction alone to account for off-target effects.

Calls are now being made to validate the study using the appropriate controls, or to compare the variants obtained with other more updated mouse genome SNP databases. I expect we will not hear the last of this study.

The study however, does re-enforce our message in a previous blogpost of validating CRISPR experiments with other techniques to establish gene function. It also highlights the extensive genetic heterogeneity seen now not only between cell lines, but between mouse strains. As always we recommend not being swept up in the hype, but to remain scientifically skeptical.

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CRISPR – what can go wrong and how to deal with it

CRISPR – what can go wrong and how to deal with it

CRISPR is a gene editing technique based on tools and principles learnt from the bacterial immune system. Gaining immense popularity world-wide, many are trying to establish CRISPR in their favourite model systems to study gene function. Here, we highlight issues to be aware of when using CRISPR and what one can do to counter or manage them.

To simplify matters, we have classified what could go wrong while performing CRISPR into three main categories, accompanied by associated exclamations one may hear in the process:

  1. “Hmm… I don’t see anything.” – Absence of phenotype
  2. “This is taking wayyy too long.” – Inefficient editing
  3. “What the *@#?!” – Unexpected phenotypes

First, some key terms…

Cas9: The bacterial RNA-guided endonuclease that mediates cutting of the DNA. The most commonly used Cas9 ortholog is from Streptococcus Pyogenes and can be introduced into cells in the form of DNA, mRNA, or protein.

sgRNA: single guide RNA composed of a 17-20 base long guide RNA (gRNA) which hybridizes to its complementary DNA sequence on the genome, defining  the target site. This is often joined to a ~70-80 base long transactivating crRNA (tracrRNA), a constant region that mediates recruitment of Cas9. sgRNAs can be introduced as one unit or in its separate components – gRNA and tracRNA – as DNA or RNA.

PAM: protospacer adjacent motif, a trinucleotide sequence 3’ adjacent to the gene editing site required for Cas9 to bind and mediate cleavage. Sequence is NGG for Cas9 from Streptococcus Pyogenes though NAG is often recognized as well. PAM sequences differ between various forms of Cas enzymes.

 

  1. “Hmm… I don’t see anything.” – Absence of phenotype

The anti-climax of a null result may stem from adaptation where the cell or organism alters other gene pathways to compensate for the loss-of-function of the target gene.

This problem is most visible to those maintaining Drosophila stocks as strength of phenotype typically decreases over multiple generations. The phenomenon is also well-documented in other models such as yeast (Teng X et al., 2013), zebrafish (Rossi et al., 2016, covered in a previous blogpost) and mice (Babaric et al., 2007). A notable Developmental Cell paper recently reported adaptation in cells (Cerikan et al., 2016) where prolonged knock-down (KD) or knock-out (KO) yielded no visible phenotype as opposed to acute KD by RNAi.

Multiple cell passages increase genetic drift, providing opportunities for the system to adapt to counter the disruptive effects of a gene knock-out. It is therefore prudent to preserve early passages of clones during clonal selection and limit multiple passages prior to assay measurement.

Besides adaptation, redundancy may also account for an absence of phenotype. Paralogous genes (i.e. genes closely related in structure or function) often exist in model systems that can fully or partially compensate for the loss-of-function of the target gene. About 50% of mouse genes and at least 17% of human genes have paralogues that may mask loss-of-function phenotypes.

One can find paralogous genes arising from gene duplication with this database and by checking existing literature. If they do exist, a co-knock-out/knock-down approach may be necessary.

 

  1. “This is taking wayyy too long.” – Inefficient editing

Despite the high efficiency of Cas9-mediated cleavage, obtaining the desired gene knock-out can still be a tedious and time-consuming process, with wide-ranging overall efficiencies of 1-79% (Unniyampurath et al., 2016).

These challenges often stem from issues associated with the cell line of choice. Due to many standard cell lines being polyploid (containing multiple copies of chromosomes), every copy of the gene has to be disrupted to ensure a complete knock-out. A process aggravated by the need for a homozygous knock-out. Transfection efficiencies, how well the cell line tolerates clonal selection and the impact of the gene modification on cell viability can also impact outcomes. If performing homology directed repair (HDR) to introduce a new sequence at the cut site, clone screening efforts have to be amplified due to the lower frequency of HDR events compared to indels.

Understanding the characteristics of your cell line and ensuring sufficient numbers of clones are screened is essential to avoid mindless weeks repeating experiments!

Editing efficiency may also be hindered by genomic accessibility. gRNAs targeting transcriptional start sites or promoters were found to be more efficient than intergenic sites due to the open chromatin structure in these areas (Liu X et al., 2016). Numerous design criteria have been recommended to ensure high cutting efficiency but performance of gRNAs may still vary. Therefore it is advisable to use at least 3 sgRNAs per gene to increase chances of success.

Sidenote: Looking for someone who can design CRISPR sgRNAs for you? siTOOLs Biotech’s CRISPR sgRNA design service couples our long-standing experience in off-target filtering with published gRNA design criterion to generate reliable gRNA sequences. Send us your enquiry and we will get back to you.

 

  1. “What the *@#?!” – Unexpected phenotypes

Unexpected results can stem from off-target effects or in some cases, may be a real effect that requires some brain rattling to make sense of.

Off-target effects are still a cause of concern for CRISPR and vary widely with different gRNA sequences ranging from 0 to up to 150 in one report (Tsai et al., 2015). In another study, ~10 to > 1000 off-target binding sites were found that varied with sgRNA sequence (Kuscu et al., 2014).

Toxicity correlated with increased off-targeting (Morgens et al., 2017) and the use of safe-targeting controls (i.e. where gRNAs are directed towards sites where cleavage is predicted to have minimal impact) was recommended. This served as a more appropriate measure of nuclease-induced toxicity as opposed to non-targeting controls that might not lead to cleavage.

Some other strategies to minimize off-targets:

  • Use the Cas9 recombinant protein/mRNA rather than a plasmid or keep DNA transfection amounts low (plasmid-driven prolonged Cas9 expression increased off-targeting events as reported by Liang et al., 2015)
  • Use truncated gRNAs of 17-18 nucleotides
  • Use D10A Cas9 nickase and paired gRNAs
  • Use a Cas9 ortholog with a longer PAM requirement

Despite our efforts to predict off-target effects, two reported sources of potential off-targets make prediction challenging:

a) Single nucleotide variants from clonal heterogeneity

b) Cas9 effects on mRNA translation

 

a) Single nucleotide variants from clonal heterogeneity

Table 1: Spontaneous SNVs and indels generated over clonal selection in human pluripotent stem cells.

Two studies (Smith et al., 2014Veres et al., 2014) carried out in pluripotent stem cells to detect off-targets saw a higher specificity of Cas9 in these cells compared to cancer cell lines but shockingly, rather large clonal heterogeneity (Table 1).  Each clone generated from the parental cell line had on average 100 unique SNVs per clone and 2-5 indels not induced by the gene modification but arising spontaneously during cell culture.

Target and off-target indel frequencies
Number of mismatches Number of genomic sites Cas9 targeting efficiency
0 1 53.9%
1 0
2 0 → 1 36.7%
3 32 ~0.15% per site

Table 2: Editing efficiencies at off-target sites with 0-3 mismatches. Condition of SNV enhancing editing efficiency shown in bold.

Yang et al., 2014 then goes on to demonstrate how an SNV at the wrong place at the wrong time can produce a high-efficiency off-target site. The said SNV corrected a mismatch at an off-target site, reducing mismatch number from 3 to 2, which increased Cas9 –mediated indel frequency to ~37%!

To manage clonal heterogeneity, we recommend performing deep sequencing to fully characterize the knock-out clone and its parental wild-type cell line. Once the locations of SNVs are identified, these can be aligned with potential off-target gRNA binding sites to check for interference. Check locations of identified unique SNVs or indels to see if they are impacting genes that may play a relevant role in your studied phenotype.

b) Cas9 effects on mRNA translation

A Scientific Reports study (Liu Y et al., 2016) reported a worrying finding that Cas9 could be recruited by gRNAs to mRNAs and block their translation. Neither PAM sequences nor Cas9 enzyme activity was required for this and the effect varied with gRNA sequence. Cas9-mediated mRNA translation suppression produced a 30-60% decrease in protein levels, sufficient to impact downstream phenotypes. For example, a gRNA targeting VEGFA with an off-target binding site to the mRNA of oncogene, B3GNT8, produced a nearly 50% drop in B3GNT8 protein levels with a corresponding drop in cell viability. This was partially rescued by overexpressing B3GNT8 with a vector.

It is still unclear to what extent this phenomenon occurs. There have been limited reports on this mechanism so far, but if true, would have a far-ranging impact. The study found gRNAs with single base mismatches at position 8-20 were still able to carry out Cas9-mediated translation repression. This low hybridization stringency requirement would make off-targets impossible to predict.

CRISPR is no doubt a powerful technology, but it still brings many unknowns. After its discovery in the 1990s, RNAi experienced a similar exponential uptake and use by the scientific community. It took several years for the problem of siRNA off-targets to become visible. Unfortunately by that time, enormous resources and energy had been sunk into large RNAi screens, which yielded numerous false hits and difficult-to-interpret data.

Figure 1. Pubmed Citations (1999-2015) with CRISPR or RNAi in Title/Abstract/Summary

Thankfully we now have  siPOOLs, or high-complexity defined siRNA pools (from siTOOLs Biotech). These custom-designed pools of 30 unique siRNAs counter the off-target effects often seen with single siRNAs or low complexity siRNA pools of 3-4 siRNAs (Marine et al., 2012, Hannus et al., 2014). Efficient at 1 nM in standard cell lines, it is the optimal RNAi reagent for highly specific, efficient and robust gene knock-down.

In order not to repeat past mistakes, it is imperative to proceed with caution and use multiple methods to establish gene function.

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References:

Barbaric, I., Miller, G. & Dear, T. N. Appearances can be deceiving: Phenotypes of knockout mice. Briefings Funct. Genomics Proteomics 6, 91–103 (2007).

Cerikan, B. et al. Cell-Intrinsic Adaptation Arising from Chronic Ablation of a Key Rho GTPase Regulator. Dev. Cell 39, 28–43 (2016).

Kuscu, C., Arslan, S., Singh, R., Thorpe, J. & Adli, M. Genome-wide analysis reveals characteristics of off-target sites bound by the Cas9 endonuclease. Nat Biotechnol 32, 677–683 (2014).

Hannus, M. et al. siPools: highly complex but accurately defined siRNA pools eliminate off-target effects. Nucleic Acids Res. 42, 8049–61 (2014).

Liang, X. et al. Rapid and highly efficient mammalian cell engineering via Cas9 protein transfection. J. Biotechnol. 208, 44–53 (2015).

Liu, X. et al. Sequence features associated with the cleavage efficiency of CRISPR/Cas9 system. Sci. Rep. 6, 19675 (2016).

Liu, Y. et al. Targeting cellular mRNAs translation by CRISPR-Cas9. Nat. Publ. Gr. 2–10 (2016). doi:10.1038/srep29652

Marine, S., Bahl, A., Ferrer, M. & Buehler, E. Common seed analysis to identify off-target effects in siRNA screens. J. Biomol. Screen. 17, 370–8 (2012).

Rossi, A. et al. Genetic compensation induced by deleterious mutations but not gene knockdowns. Nature 524, 230–233 (2015).

Smith, C. et al. Whole-Genome Sequencing Analysis Reveals High Specificity of CRISPR/Cas9 and TALEN-Based Genome Editing in Human iPSCs. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2014.06.011

Teng, X. et al. Genome-wide Consequences of Deleting Any Single Gene. Mol. Cell 52, 485–494 (2017).

Tsai, S. Q. et al. GUIDE-seq enables genome-wide profiling of off-target cleavage by CRISPR-Cas nucleases. Nat Biotech 33, 187–197 (2015).

Unniyampurath, U., Pilankatta, R. & Krishnan, M. N. RNA Interference in the Age of CRISPR : Will CRISPR Interfere with RNAi ? (2016). doi:10.3390/ijms17030291

Veres, A. et al. Low incidence of Off-target mutations in individual CRISPR-Cas9 and TALEN targeted human stem cell clones detected by whole-genome sequencing. Cell Stem Cell 15, 27–30 (2014).

Yang, L. et al. Targeted and genome-wide sequencing reveal single nucleotide variations impacting specificity of Cas9 in human stem cells. Nat. Commun. 5, 1–6 (2014).

Further helpful reading:

Housden, B. E. et al. Loss-of-function genetic tools for animal models: cross-species and cross-platform differences. Nat. Publ. Gr. (2016). doi:10.1038/nrg.2016.118

 

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