Programmable repression and activation of bacterial
gene expression using an engineered CRISPR-Cas
David Bikard1,*, Wenyan Jiang1, Poulami Samai1, Ann Hochschild2, Feng Zhang3,4,5,6
and Luciano A. Marraffini1,*
1Laboratory of Bacteriology, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA,
2Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology, Harvard Medical School, 4 Blackfan Circle, Boston, MA
02115, USA,3Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, 7 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA,
4McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA,
5Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139,
USA and6Department of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Received February 27, 2013; Revised May 14, 2013; Accepted May 18, 2013
The ability to artificially control transcription is es-
sential both to the study of gene function and to the
desired properties. Cas9 is an RNA-guided double-
stranded DNA nuclease that participates in the
CRISPR-Cas immune defense against prokaryotic
viruses. We describe the use of a Cas9 nuclease
mutant that retains DNA-binding activity and can
be engineered as a programmable transcription re-
pressor by preventing the binding of the RNA poly-
merase (RNAP) to promoter sequences or as a
transcription terminator by blocking the running
RNAP. In addition, a fusion between the omega
subunit of the RNAP and a Cas9 nuclease mutant
directed to bind upstream promoter regions can
The simple and efficient modulation of gene expres-
sion achieved by this technology is a useful asset
for the study of gene networks and for the develop-
ment of synthetic biology and biotechnological
Recombinant DNA technologies have advanced the study
of gene function through the development of systems that
use naturally occurring gene-regulation mechanisms to
control gene expression. Transcription factors bind
specific DNA sequences upstream of genes and can
either repress or activate their expression, for example
by preventing the RNA polymerase (RNAP) from
gaining access to the promoter or by facilitating the pro-
ductive binding of RNAP to the promoter. Many tran-
scription factors have been exploited to modulate gene
expression in a controlled fashion (1), but all require the
engineering of specific promoter sequences that can be
bound by the regulator. On the other hand, the sequence
specificity of DNA-binding proteins has been manipulated
(2). During the past decade, the relative facility with which
Zinc Finger DNA-binding proteins and Transcription
Activator–Like Effectors can be reprogrammed to bind
specific sequences has been used to direct transcription
activation or repression (3–6). However, the engineering
of sequence specificity for these proteins remains a time-
consuming and cost-intensive process.
Recently, the study of clustered, regularly interspaced,
short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) loci, which encode a
prokaryotic immune system, has revealed the existence of
nucleases whose sequence specificity is determined by a
small CRISPR RNA (crRNA) guide (7–9). CRISPR loci
constitute an array of short repetitive sequences separated
by equally short ‘spacers’ that match the genomes of
phages and mobile genetic elements that infect bacteria
transcribed as a long precursor crRNA that is cleaved at
endoribonucleases, liberating small crRNAs (14–17). The
crRNAs are then used as antisense guides for Cas
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. Tel: +1 212 327 7014; Fax: +1 212 327 8262; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correspondence may also be addressed to David Bikard. Tel: +1 212 327 7015; Fax: +1 212 327 8262; Email: email@example.com
The authors wish it to be known that, in their opinion, the first two authors should be regarded as joint First Authors.
Published online 12 June 2013Nucleic Acids Research, 2013, Vol. 41, No. 157429–7437
? The Author(s) 2013. Published by Oxford University Press.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/
by-nc/3.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For commercial
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nucleases to find the targets (also known as protospacers)
and destroy the genome of the invader (7–9,18,19).
CRISPR-Cas systems can be divided into three types de-
pending on the cas gene content and mechanism of
immunity (20). In type II systems, the biogenesis of
small crRNAs requires the coordinated action of the
Cas9 nuclease, the host RNase III and a small trans-
activating crRNA (tracrRNA) (21). Cas9 is a crRNA-
guided double-stranded DNA endonuclease with two
domains, RuvC and HNH, each of which cleaves one
strand within the target DNA (7,8). In addition to the
match between the guide crRNA and the protospacer
sequence, Cas9 also requires the presence of a conserved
sequence motif downstream of the protospacer, known as
the protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM) (7,8,18,22,23).
One of the best characterized Cas9 nucleases is encoded
by Streptococcus pyogenes. After crRNA processing, this
enzyme is loaded with a crRNA guide containing 20nt of
the spacer sequence followed by 19–22nt of repeat
sequence (21). Target recognition and cleavage require a
match between the target and a ‘seed’ sequence of
12–15nt at the 30end of the guide sequence (upstream mu-
tations do not abrogate DNA cleavage), as well as an NGG
PAM (7,8,23). Mutations D10A and H840A in the RuvC
and HNH domains, respectively, abolish cleavage but do
not impair DNA binding (8). Recently, we and others used
the programmable nuclease activity of S. pyogenes Cas9 to
direct genome editing both in eukaryotes and prokaryotes
(23–28). Here, we exploit the DNA-binding activity of a
Cas9 catalytic site mutant, referred to as ‘dead’ Cas9
(dCas9), to engineer a programmable transcription regula-
tor (Figure 1A). We show that directing dCas9 to promoter
regions results in transcription repression, presumably by
preventing the binding of RNAP. We also show that using
crRNA guides that specify dCas9 binding to open reading
frames blocks transcription elongation. Finally, we con-
verted dCas9 into a transcription activator by fusing it to
the omega subunit of RNAP, a strategy previously shown
to enhance transcription (29), and directing it to promoter
regions of weakly expressed genes. This technology
provides a simple and efficient method for global regulation
of gene expression and is predicted to facilitate the study of
prokaryotic gene networks and the development of syn-
thetic biology applications.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Strains and culture conditions
Escherichia coli cells were grown in Luria-Bertani (LB)
broth supplemented, when appropriate, with the following
(25mg/ml) and spectinomycin (50mg/ml). Liquid cultures
of Streptococcus pneumoniae were grown in THYE
medium (30g/l Todd-Hewitt agar, 5g/l Yeast Extract)
and plated on tryptic soy agar supplemented with 5%
defibrinated sheep blood. When appropriate, kanamycin
(400mg/ml), spectinomycin (100mg/ml) or chlorampheni-
col (5mg/ml) were added to the media.
Transcription repression experiments were carried out in
E. coli strain DH5a and in S. pneumoniae strain DB17.
Streptococcus pneumoniae strain DB17 was constructed by
introducing the D10A and H840A mutations in the cas9
gene of strain crR6Rk (23) via transformation and recom-
bination of a SOEing PCR product (30) generated with
primers L402/B337, B338/B339 and B340/L403. Supple-
mentary Table S1 contains the sequences of all the primers
used for plasmid and strain construction in this study.
Transcription activation of the lacZ gene (encoding
b-galactosidase) was studied in E. coli KS1?Z, a strain
carrying the lacZ gene under the control of a weak
promoter that can be induced by a cI-o fusion (29).
Green fluorescence protein (GFP) assays were performed
in an E. coli MG1655 mutant (JEN202) in which rpoZ,
encoding for the o subunit of RNAP, was replaced by a
spectinomycin resistance gene. To construct this strain,
primers W573/W574. The PCR product was transformed
into E. coli MG1655 harboring plasmid pKOBEG for
lambda-red recombination (32). Integrants were selected
on LB agar with spectinomycin.
Supplementary Table S2 contains a list of the plasmids
used in this study. Plasmid pDB98 (23) was used as the
source for crRNA guides in S. pneumoniae DB17. This
plasmid is a derivative of pLZ12spec (33) that carries a
CRISPR02 containing the leader sequence and two
repeats separated by a spacer carrying two BsaI restriction
sites for the easy cloning of new spacers. Spacers were
cloned by digestion with BsaI, and ligation of annealed
oligonucleotides designed as follow: 50-aaac+(target se-
quence)+g-30and 50-aaaac+(reverse complement of the
target sequence)-30, where the target sequence is 30nt
and is followed by a functional PAM (NGG). A list of
Supplementary Table S3.
Plasmid pCas9 was generated in a previous study (23).
Plasmid pdCas9 was constructed by introducing D10A
and H840A mutations to cas9 on pCas9 through amplifi-
cation of this plasmid with primers B337/B340 and B338/
B339, followed by Gibson assembly (34) of the two
products. Both plasmids contain a minimal CRISPR
array with BsaI sites for the cloning of new spacers
using complementary oligonucleotides. The in-frame
deletion of dcas9 on pdCas9 was achieved by amplifica-
tion of the plasmid with primers B544/B545 and Gibson
assembly of the resulting products.
Fusion of the o subunit (rpoZ) to dCas9 was achieved
by amplification of pdCas9 with primers B441/W551 or
B446/W552, and amplification of rpoZ with primers B442/
W550 or W553/B448 to create the C- or N-terminal o
fusions, respectively, followed by Gibson assembly.
Plasmid pWJ66 carries the C-terminal fusion and pWJ68
the N-terminal fusion. To measure induction in E. coli
KS1?Z, a chloramphenicol-resistant strain, the plasmid
resistance was changedto spectinomycin.
pWJ66 and pWJ68 were amplified with oligos H001/
amplified from pSWKspec with oligos H003/H004;
study isprovided in
7430 Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 15
Gibson assembly of the PCR products generated plasmids
pDB191 and pDB192.
Plasmid pDB127 was constructed by amplification of
gfp-mut2 (35) with primers B368/B371, followed by diges-
tion with EcoRI and BamHI, and ligation together with
the annealed oligonucleotides B369/B370 in the pZS24-
MCS1 (36) vector cut with XhoI and BamHI. The
sequence of the PAM-rich promoter carried by pDB127
is provided in the Supplementary Sequences.
Plasmids pWJ89, pWJ96 and pWJ97 were constructed
by changing the promoter of gfp-mut2 on pDB127 for
BBa_J23110, respectively (http://partsregistry.org). The
region upstream of the promoter was changed to include
multiple NGG PAM sequences on both strands. Full
sequences of these promoters are provided in the
Fluorescence was measured in a Tecan microplate
reader. In all experiments, background fluorescence, or
auto-fluorescence, was measured using a control strain
lacking the GFP reporter. Auto-fluorescence was sub-
tracted from the fluorescence readings and relative fluor-
escence was normalized to cells expressing a non-targeting
crRNA (encoded by the BsaI sequences designed for
b-galactosidase activity in E. coli and S. pneumoniae was
measured as previously described (37).
Northern blot analysis
RNA was extracted from overnight cultures using TRIzol
(Invitrogen) following the manufacturer’s protocol. For
each sample, 10mg of RNA were separated on a 5% poly-
acrylamide gel. The RNA was electro-transferred to a
charged membrane and hybridized either to a probe
upstream (P511) or downstream (P510) of the T10 and
B10 target sites. A probe annealing to the 5S rRNA
(B507) was used as a control.
Figure 1. dCas9-mediated repression in E. coli. (A) Plasmid pdCas9 encodes a cas9 mutant containing D10A and H840A substitutions (red asterisks)
that abrogate nuclease activity. dCas9 binds to a tracrRNA:precursor crRNA and recruits RNase III to process the precursor and liberate the
crRNA. The crRNA directs binding of dCas9 to promoter or open reading frame regions to prevent RNAP binding or elongation, respectively.
(B) GFP fluorescence of cells expressing dCas9 guided to different regions of the gfp-mut2 gene, relative to the fluorescence of cells expressing a non-
targeting dCas9, as a function of the position of the target sequence within the gene (+1, transcription start). Squares indicate the PAM position,
lines the extension of complementarity between the crRNA guide and the reporter gene. Red and blue lines indicate crRNAs sequences identical to
top or bottom DNA strand, respectively. Error bars show one standard deviation from the mean of three relative fluorescence values. The gfp-mut2
gene (green), its promoter, including the ?35 and ?10 elements (gray shade) and the ribosome binding site (rbs) are shown as reference for the
localization of the dCas9 binding sites. (C) Nothern blot with probes annealing either upstream or downstream of the T10 and B10 target sites using
RNA extracted from cells expressing T5-, T10-, B10-guided dCas9 or a control strain without a target. Detection of 5S RNA serves as control.
Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 157431
We converted the S. pyogenes Cas9 nuclease into a pro-
grammable DNA-binding protein by introducing the
D10A and H840A mutations in the RuvC and HNH
nuclease domains, respectively (8). This catalytically
‘dead’ version of Cas9, dCas9, was introduced into the
pdCas9 plasmid along with the tracrRNA and a
minimal CRISPR array designed for the easy cloning of
new spacers and expression of crRNA guides (23). To
evaluate the effect of dCas9 promoter binding on gene
expression in E. coli, we constructed a GFP reporter
plasmid (pDB127) carrying the gfp-mut2 gene (35) under
the control of a promoter designed to carry several NGG
PAM sequences on both strands. Twenty-two different
spacers were engineered to express crRNAs guiding
dCas9 to different regions of the gfp-mut2 promoter and
open reading frame. A greater than 100-fold reduction in
fluorescence was observed on targeting of regions
overlapping or adjacent to the ?35 and ?10 promoter
elements and to the
(Figure 1B). Targets on both strands showed similar re-
pression levels. These experiments suggest that the binding
of dCas9 to any position within the promoter region
prevents transcription initiation, presumably through
steric inhibition of RNAP binding. To confirm that re-
pression was due to dCas9 binding of the promoter
DNA and not an effect of the antisense guide crRNA by
itself, we repeated experiments in the absence of dCas9. In
all cases tested, the fluorescence levels were identical to a
non-targeting dCas9 control (Supplementary Figure S1).
To determine whether dCas9 DNA binding could
prevent transcription elongation, we directed it to the
open reading frame of gfp-mut2. A reduction in fluores-
cence was observed when both the coding and non-coding
strands were targeted, suggesting that Cas9 binding could
block the elongating RNAP (Figure 1B). However,
although a ?20–40% reduction in expression was
observed when the non-coding strand (the crRNA has
the same sequence as the coding strand) was targeted
(red spacers), a range of 6- to 35-fold reduction was
observed when dCas9 was directed to the coding strand
(blue spacers). To directly determine the effects of dCas9
binding on transcription, we extracted RNA from strains
expressing the T5, T10 or B10 crRNA guides or a non-
targeting dCas9 and subjected it to northern blot analysis
using probes binding before (P511) or after (P510) the B10
and T10 target sites (Figure 1C). Consistent with our
fluorescence measurement, no gfp-mut2 transcription was
detected when dCas9 was directed to the promoter region
were observed after the targeting of the T10 region.
Interestingly, a smaller transcript was observed with the
P511 probe in cells where dCas9 binds to the T10 or B10
target. These species correspond to the expected size of a
transcript that would be interrupted by dCas9 (calculated
as ?250 or 300nt between the transcription start and the
B10 or T10 target sites, respectively). This result is a direct
indication that dCas9 causes transcription termination. In
accordance with the pronounced decrease in fluorescence
caused by B10-bound dCas9, only the truncated gfp tran-
script, but no full-length transcript, was detected with the
P511 probe. Altogether, these results demonstrate that dir-
ecting dCas9 to different gene regions can prevent both
Interestingly, dCas9 targeting of the coding strand
blocks transcription more efficiently than targeting of
the non-coding strand, suggesting a more efficient dis-
placement of this protein by the elongating RNAP in
To corroborate the generality and broad applicability of
the approach, we tested the ability of dCas9 to repress
b-galactosidase (bgaA) expression in S. pneumoniae, a
Gram-positive organism. To do this, we engineered a
strain (DB17) harboring dcas9 and the tracrRNA in the
chromosome, whereas crRNA guides were expressed from
a plasmid carrying the CRISPR array, pDB98 (23)
(Supplementary Figure S2A). Three spacers targeting dif-
ferent positions within the bgaA promoter and two spacers
targeting the bgaA open reading frame were tested
(Supplementary Figure S2B). We observed up to a 14-
fold reduction in b-galactosidase activity depending on
Binding of dCas9 to similar regions of the gfp-mut2 and
bgaA promoters produced different results. We believe
that this could be related to the different regulation of
these promoters. Although gfp-mut2 is under the control
of a synthetic constitutive promoter, the bgaA promoter is
Alternatively, the binding strength of dCas9 can depend
on the guide crRNA sequence. In contrast, dCas9 binding
within the open reading frame regions produced similar
results in E. coli and S. pneumoniae: targeting the coding
strand blocked transcription more efficiently than target-
ing the non-coding strand. These results suggest that tar-
geting the non-coding strand should be the preferred
strategy for the use of dCas9 as a programmable
Modulation of dCas9-mediated repression levels
Some applications require a precise tuning of gene expres-
sion rather than its complete repression. We sought to
achieve intermediate repression levels through the intro-
duction of mismatches that will weaken the crRNA/target
interactions. We created a series of spacers based on the
B1, T5 and B10 constructs that express crRNAs
with increasing numbers of mutations in the 50end
(Figure 2A). Introduction of up to eight mismatches in
B1 and T5 did not affect the repression level, and a pro-
gressive increase in fluorescence was observed for add-
itional mutations (Figure 2B). A different pattern was
observed for the gradual mutagenesis of the B10
crRNA: a gradual decrease in repression was achieved
through the introduction of an increasing number of
mismatches, with as little as two mismatches providing a
lower level of repression than a crRNA fully complemen-
tary to the target (Figure 2B). These results demonstrate
that the introduction of mismatches in the crRNA guide
allows for the modulation of dCas9 repression. However,
the number of the mismatches required to achieve this
7432Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 15
modulation depends on the mode of dCas9 repression, i.e.
blocking transcription initiation or elongation.
Our results show that 12nt of complementarity
(8 mismatches) between the 30end of the crRNA spacer
sequence and the target are sufficient to provide strong
transcriptional repression by dCas9. In contrast, efficient
in vitro cleavage by Cas9 requires 15nt of homology
(5 mismatches) (8). To determine whether this discrepancy
is generated by the introduction of the catalytic site mu-
tations in dCas9 or to differences between in vivo and
in vitro assays, we tested our mismatch-containing
crRNAs for their abilities to direct DNA cleavage by
wild-type Cas9. We measured the transformation effi-
ciency of the GFP reporter plasmid pDB127 into cells
expressing Cas9 and variants of the B10 crRNA with an
increasing number of mutations at the 50end (Figure 2C).
As expected, no transformants were recovered in the
presence of a perfect match between the crRNA and the
target, demonstrating Cas9 nuclease activity against
crRNA:target interaction restored transformation effi-
ciency to the same levels obtained with competent cells
expressing a non-targeting Cas9. However, transformant
colonies were smaller than the control transformation and
of variable sizes, suggesting partial CRISPR immunity
against pDB127. Consistent with this hypothesis, the
targeted plasmid displayed a strong reduction in copy
number (Figure 2D). CRISPR immunity against the
plasmid was completely eliminated with four mismatches
or more. As a minimum of six or seven mismatches are
required to abolish Cas9 cleavage in vitro (8), these results
suggest that mismatches are less tolerated in vivo than
in vitro. Alternatively, the effect of mismatches can be
different for different crRNA sequences.
The comparison of Cas9 targeting versus dCas9 repres-
sion on the same protospacer (B10) using different
crRNAs with increasing numbers of mutations produced
another interesting observation. If dCas9 is able to bind
and repress gfp expression using a crRNA guide with only
12nt of complementarity with the target, and Cas9 is not
able to cleave the target under the same conditions, this
suggests that wild-type Cas9 could bind and repress as
dCas9 in the presence of 50mismatches between the
crRNA and the protospacer. When this was tested, we
Figure 2. Effect of mismatches between crRNA guide and target sequence. (A) Protospacer and crRNA-guide sequences for the B10 target site.
Mutations in the 50region of the crRNA are shown in lower case; Watson–Crick complementary bases were introduced. (B) Effect of an increasing
number of mutations in the 50end of the B1, T5 and B10 crRNAs on gfp-mut2 repression mediated by dCas9. Repression by wild-type Cas9 guided
by mutant versions of the B10 crRNA is also shown. Fluorescence values are normalized to the fluorescence of a strain expressing gfp-mut2 and
dCas9, but no crRNA guide (Ø). Error bars show one standard deviation from the mean of three relative fluorescence values. (C) Effect of Cas9
targeting using a B10 crRNA guide with increasing numbers of mutations at the 50end on the transformation of the GFP reporter plasmid, pDB127,
or an empty vector control, pZS*24. The mean of three independent enumerations of the total number of colony forming units (CFU) per
transformation is shown; error bars indicate one standard deviation. (D) Agarose gel electrophoresis of SacI-digested purified plasmids from cells
obtained after transformation of the pDB127-target plasmid into cells expressing wild-type Cas9 and different 50mutant versions of the B10 crRNA.
Individual plasmids are shown to indicate the electrophoretic mobility of each plasmid.
Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 15 7433
found not only that wild-type Cas9 can repress gene ex-
pression but to the same levels as dCas9 (Figure 2B).
These results show that in the presence of mismatches
between the 50end of the crRNA and the target, wild-
type Cas9 is unable to cleave the target but can still bind
it with substantial affinity to repress gene expression.
We decided to convert dCas9 into a transcription activa-
tor. We relied on previous work that demonstrated that a
fusion between the lambda cI repressor and the RNAP
omega subunit (o) can activate transcription by stabilizing
the binding of RNAP to a promoter bearing an upstream
lambda operator (29). Therefore, we made both C- and
N-terminal fusions between the o subunit and dCas9
(Figure 3A). We also expressed different crRNAs to
program the binding of both fusion proteins to four dif-
ferent positions in a constitutive synthetic promoter
controlling the lacZ gene (Figure 3B) in an E. coli strain
lacking the gene encoding for the o subunit (rpoZ). We
used a fusion of the o subunit to the C-terminus of dCas9
(dCas9-o lacking a targeting crRNA guide as a control,
and we measured b-galactosidase activity as a reporter of
gene expression (Figure 3C). The effect of both fusion
proteins on lacZ expression depended on the binding
site, still causing gene repression when the binding site
was too close to the promoter region. With binding sites
more distant from the promoter, we observed a modest
increase in b-galactosidase activity; in the best case, we
observed 2.8-fold activation for the dCas9-o C-terminal
We thus decided to further investigate the activation
capabilities of the dCas9-o fusion when targeted to
regions increasingly distant from the ?35 promoter
element as well as to both DNA strands (Figure 4A). To
facilitate measurements, we used a GFP reporter plasmid,
pWJ89, with the gfp-mut2 gene under the control of a
weak biobrick promoter (BBa_J23117) that is preceded
by a sequence rich in NGG PAM sequences on both
strands. Among 10 tested binding sites, 2 (specified by
W103 and W108 crRNAs, each targeting a different
strand) were found to strongly activate gfp-mut2 (Figure
4B). These are located 43 and 59nt away from the ?35
element (80 and 96nt upstream of the transcription start
site) and provide a 7.2- and 23-fold induction, respectively.
A similar relative induction was observed when fluores-
cence is measured at different growth phases (data not
shown). These data suggest that a dCas9-o fusion can
induce gene expression when it binds at an optimal
distance from the promoter.
To test whether the dCas9-o fusion can induce expres-
sion of gfp-mut2 under the control of stronger promoters,
we replaced the weak promoter in pWJ89 (BBa_J23117)
with promoters of intermediate (BBa_J23116) and high
dCas9-o activation of gfp expression from the three con-
structs using the W103 and W108 crRNA guides. All pro-
moters could be induced by the targeting of dCas9-o to
both binding sites; however, the relative induction
diminishes as the promoter gets stronger. Altogether,
these results show that dCas9 can be used to activate
gene expression, with the possibility of achieving different
levels of activation depending on the strength of the
targeted promoter (the best induction being obtained
with weak promoters).
The manipulation of gene expression in prokaryotes is
usually achieved through the use of promoters whose
activity can be modulated using small molecules (38).
This requires genetic engineering to place the gene of
interest under the control of inducible promoters. Given
the lack of RNAi (39) in prokaryotes, methods that allow
for simple and global regulation of gene expression are
limited (40). Here, we describe the use of an RNA-
guided DNA-binding protein, dCas9, to either repress or
activate genes in E. coli and S. pneumoniae. In this
Figure 3. Activation of gene expression in E. coli using dCas9 fused to the o subunit of RNAP. (A) dCas9 is directed to the promoter region and is
fused to the o subunit of RNAP, which recruits the polymerase by interacting with the b0subunit. A host with a deletion of rpoZ, encoding o, is
used. (B) Either N- or C-terminal fusions of the o subunit to dCas9 were directed to four regions of the top strand upstream of the ?35 element of
the lacZ gene. (C) lacZ gene expression levels in the different strains were measured as b-galactosidase activity (Miller units). Activation is reported
as the relative Miller units normalized against the units obtained with cells expressing a C-terminal dCas9-o fusion but no crRNA guide (Ø). The
average of three independent experiments is indicated; error bars indicate one standard deviation. Asterisks indicate the P-values associated with each
measurement, compared with the no crRNA guide control (Ø). *P?0.05; **P?0.005; ***P?0.001.
7434Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 15
method, dCas9 can be directed to any region of the bac-
terial chromosome that is specified by the base-pair com-
plementarity between the RNA guide and the cognate
genomic sequence, i.e. without the need to modify the
promoter sequence of the gene whose expression is
Repression is achieved by directing dCas9 to either
promoter or open-reading frame regions. Although
binding of dCas9 to promoters prevents transcription
initiation, binding to the open-reading frame prevents
elongation, especially when the coding strand is targeted.
While this article was in review, Qi and colleagues (41)
also showed that dCas9 can act as a transcription repres-
sor by preventing initiation or elongation, both in E. coli
and human (HEK293) cells. As opposed to our system,
which uses the natural CRISPR array and tracrRNA, Qi
et al. used a chimeric crRNA as a guide. Chimeric
crRNAs combine critical
moieties into a single small RNA that can be loaded
into dCas9 without the need for processing by RNAse
III (8). In this study, dCas9 was under the control of an
inducible promoter, demonstrating that repression can be
reversible if the inducer is withdrawn from the culture. By
using several chimeric guide RNAs, Qi et al. demonstrated
that this methodology can be applied for repression of
multiple loci at the same time. Multiplexing will also be
possible with our system, as the CRISPR array can be
engineered to contain multiple spacers encoding different
Target specificity is an important aspect of all the recent
Cas9-based technologies. Qi et al. analyzed this by
truncating the 50end of a chimeric guide RNA that
prevents transcription elongation. They observed that re-
pression is noticeable with at least 12nt of homology
between the chimeric RNA and the protospacer (41). In
addition, the authors performed RNAseq in the presence
and absence of dCas9 targeting and determined that the
only transcript with a significant change in abundance was
the one specified by the RNA guide. We also determined
the effects of the accumulation of mismatches at the 50end
of crRNAs that prevent both transcription initiation and
elongation. In accordance with the results of Qi et al., we
found that a 12nt match between crRNA and protospacer
produces a weak but significant repression if the coding
strand of an open-reading frame is targeted. In theory, as
in addition to the crRNA:protospacer matches a perfect
PAM is required for dCas9 repression, such off-target
sequence occurs randomly about once every 414bp,
268Mbp, and thus is unlikely to be found in bacterial
genomes [the largest size to date is 13Mbp (42)], but
more likely to be present in larger eukaryotic genomes.
Nonetheless, off target effects can happen, especially
during studies that require the design of many crRNA
guides. For example, during the course of this study, we
were unable to clone one of the designed spacers on the
pdCas9 vector. We later found that this spacer showed a
12nt perfect match next to a good PAM in the essential
murC gene (43) (Supplementary Figure S3). Such off-
target effect could easily be avoided by a systematic
blast of the engineered spacers. By analyzing the effect
of mismatches between the crRNA and its target on
dCas9 repression, we found that wild-type Cas9 can
repress gene expression when directed by a crRNA with
at least 4nt of mismatch at the 50end that prevents it from
efficiently cleaving its target. This finding suggests that
endogenous CRISPR systems could actively repress gene
expression when an imperfect match exists between the
crRNA and its targets. The inhibition of biofilm forma-
tion by the type I CRISPR system of Pseudomonas
aeruginosa, a phenomenon that requires mismatches
Figure 4. Activation of gene expression using a dCas9-o fusion.
(A) The positions of the different crRNA guides tested (W101–
W110), relative to the ribosome binding site (rbs) and the ?35 and
?10 promoter elements of the gfp-mut2 gene are shown. (B) GFP fluor-
escence levels, relative to the fluorescence produced by a control strain
expressing a non-targeting dCas9-o, as a function of the position of the
target sequence within the gfp-mut2 upstream region (+1, transcription
start). Squares indicate the PAM position, lines the extension of com-
plementarity between the crRNA guide and the reporter gene; red lines,
top strand targets; blue, bottom strand. Error bars show one standard
deviation from the mean of three relative fluorescence values.
(C) Activation of three variants gfp-mut2 containing promoters of dif-
ferent strengths (J23117, J23116 and J23110) by W103- or W108-guided
dCas9-o. The relative induction, compared with the fluorescence of
cells expressing a non-targeting dCas9-o, is shown. The average of
three independent experiments is indicated; error bars indicate one
standard deviation. Asterisks indicate the P-values associated with
each measurement, compared with the no spacer control. *P?0.05;
Nucleic Acids Research, 2013,Vol.41, No. 15 7435
between the crRNA and its target, could be an example of
this side effect of CRISPR immunity on transcription (44).
Finally, we demonstrated that dCas9 can be directed to
promoter regions to activate gene expression. This
requires the addition of an activation domain, in this
study the o subunit of RNAP, which was previously
shown to provide effective recruitment of RNAP (29).
Activation levels depended on the distance between the
dCas9-binding sequence and the ?35 promoter element.
A maximum of a 23-fold induction was achieved with a
bottom strand target with its PAM positioned 59nt
upstream of the ?35 element. This level of activation is
low when compared with the activation achieved by a cI-o
fusion, which provides 70-fold induction (29). We believe
that activation can be further optimized by changing the
protein linker between dCas9 and the activation domain
and/or testing different activation domains.
Results presented here and in Qi et al. (41) reveal a new
powerful technology to regulate gene expression in pro-
karyotes with an exciting future. The use of larger
CRISPR arrays generating multiple crRNA guides can
provide the possibility of affecting many genes at the
same time and will allow genetic network organization
to be probed. dCas9 gene regulation can also be applied
to the engineering of synthetic gene networks in living cells
for biotechnological applications. There is also the possi-
bility of tethering dCas9 fused to fluorescent proteins to
specific loci to investigate the influence of gene function
and expression on the subcellular positioning of chromo-
somal loci in bacteria (45). We anticipate that dCas9-
based technologies will contribute to the success of these
Supplementary Data are available at NAR Online:
Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Figures 1–3
and Supplementary Sequences.
The authors thank members of the Nussenzweig’s labora-
tory at The Rockefeller University for technical assistance
with GFP fluorescence measurements. They are grateful to
Seth Darst for his advice.
Harvey L. Karp Discovery Award and the Bettencourt
Schuller Foundation (to D.B.); Helmsley Postdoctoral
Fellowship for Basic and Translational Research on
Disorders of the Digestive System at The Rockefeller
University (to P.S.); NIH grant [R01 GM044025 to
A.H.]; NIH Director’s Pioneer Award [DP1MH100706],
Transformative R01, the Keck, McKnight, Gates, Damon
Runyon, Searle Scholars, Klingenstein, and Simons
Foundations, Bob Metcalfe, Mike Boylan and Jane
Rita Allen Scholars Program, an Irma T. Hirschl Award
[1DP2AI104556-01 to L.A.M.]. Funding for open access
Conflict of interest statement. None declared.
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