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A functioning gene drive system could fundamentally change our strategies for the control of vector-borne diseases by facilitating rapid dissemination of transgenes that prevent pathogen transmission or reduce vector capacity. CRISPR/Cas9 gene drive promises such a mechanism, which works by converting cells that are heterozygous for the drive construct into homozygotes, thereby enabling super-Mendelian inheritance. Although CRISPR gene drive activity has already been demonstrated, a key obstacle for current systems is their propensity to generate resistance alleles, which cannot be converted to drive alleles. In this study, we developed two CRISPR gene drive constructs based on the nanos and vasa promoters that allowed us to illuminate the different mechanisms by which resistance alleles are formed in the model organism Drosophila melanogaster. We observed resistance allele formation at high rates both prior to fertilization in the germline and post-fertilization in the embryo due to maternally deposited Cas9. Assessment of drive activity in genetically diverse backgrounds further revealed substantial differences in conversion efficiency and resistance rates. Our results demonstrate that the evolution of resistance will likely impose a severe limitation to the effectiveness of current CRISPR gene drive approaches, especially when applied to diverse natural populations.
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The recent development of a CRISPR-Cas9-based homing system for the suppression of Anopheles gambiae is encouraging; however, with current designs, the slow emergence of homing-resistant alleles is expected to result in suppressed populations rapidly rebounding, as homing-resistant alleles have a significant fitness advantage over functional, population-suppressing homing alleles. To explore this concern, we develop a mathematical model to estimate tolerable rates of homing-resistant allele generation to suppress a wild population of a given size. Our results suggest that, to achieve meaningful population suppression, tolerable rates of resistance allele generation are orders of magnitude smaller than those observed for current designs for CRISPR-Cas9-based homing systems. To remedy this, we theoretically explore a homing system architecture in which guide RNAs (gRNAs) are multiplexed, increasing the effective homing rate and decreasing the effective resistant allele generation rate. Modeling results suggest that the size of the population that can be suppressed increases exponentially with the number of multiplexed gRNAs and that, with four multiplexed gRNAs, a mosquito species could potentially be suppressed on a continental scale. We also demonstrate successful proof-of-principle use of multiplexed ribozyme flanked gRNAs to induce mutations in vivo in Drosophila melanogaster – a strategy that could readily be adapted to engineer stable, homing-based drives in relevant organisms.
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Gene drive systems promote the spread of genetic elements through populations by assuring they are inherited more often than Mendelian segregation would predict (see the figure). Natural examples of gene drive from Drosophila include sex-ratio meiotic drive, segregation distortion, and replicative transposition. Synthetic drive systems based on selective embryonic lethality or homing endonucleases have been described previously in Drosophila melanogaster (1–3), but they are difficult to build or are limited to transgenic populations. In contrast, RNAguided gene drives based on the CRISPR/Cas9 nuclease can, in principle, be constructed by any laboratory capable of making transgenic organisms (4). They have tremendous potential to address global problems in health, agriculture, and conservation, but their capacity to alter wild populations outside the laboratory demands caution (4–7). Just as researchers working with self-propagating pathogens must ensure that these agents do not escape to the outside world, scientists working in the laboratory with gene drive constructs are responsible for keeping them confined (4, 6, 7).
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The type II clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) system has emerged recently as a powerful method to manipulate the genomes of various organisms. Here, we report a toolbox for high-efficiency genome engineering of Drosophila melanogaster consisting of transgenic Cas9 lines and versatile guide RNA (gRNA) expression plasmids. Systematic evaluation reveals Cas9 lines with ubiquitous or germ-line-restricted patterns of activity. We also demonstrate differential activity of the same gRNA expressed from different U6 snRNA promoters, with the previously untested U6:3 promoter giving the most potent effect. An appropriate combination of Cas9 and gRNA allows targeting of essential and nonessential genes with transmission rates ranging from 25-100%. We also demonstrate that our optimized CRISPR/Cas tools can be used for offset nicking-based mutagenesis. Furthermore, in combination with oligonucleotide or long double-stranded donor templates, our reagents allow precise genome editing by homology-directed repair with rates that make selection markers unnecessary. Last, we demonstrate a novel application of CRISPR/Cas-mediated technology in revealing loss-of-function phenotypes in somatic cells following efficient biallelic targeting by Cas9 expressed in a ubiquitous or tissue-restricted manner. Our CRISPR/Cas tools will facilitate the rapid evaluation of mutant phenotypes of specific genes and the precise modification of the genome with single-nucleotide precision. Our results also pave the way for high-throughput genetic screening with CRISPR/Cas.
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Homing endonuclease gene (HEG) drive is a promising insect population control technique that employs meganucleases to impair the fitness of pest populations. Our previous studies showed that HEG drive was more difficult to achieve in Drosophila melanogaster than Anopheles gambiae and we therefore investigated ways of improving homing performance in Drosophila. We show that homing in Drosophila responds to increased expression of HEGs specifically during the spermatogonia stage and this could be achieved through improved construct design. We found that 3'-UTR choice was important to maximise expression levels, with HEG activity increasing as we employed Hsp70, SV40, vasa and βTub56D derived UTRs. We also searched for spermatogonium-specific promoters and found that the Rcd-1r promoter was able to drive specific expression at this stage. Since Rcd-1 is a regulator of differentiation in other species, it suggests that Rcd-1r may serve a similar role during spermatogonial differentiation in Drosophila. Contrary to expectations, a fragment containing the entire region between the TBPH gene and the bgcn translational start drove strong HEG expression only during late spermatogenesis rather than in the germline stem cells and spermatogonia as expected. We also observed that the fraction of targets undergoing homing was temperature-sensitive, falling nearly four-fold when the temperature was lowered to 18°C. Taken together, this study demonstrates how a few simple measures can lead to substantial improvements in the HEG-based gene drive strategy and reinforce the idea that the HEG approach may be widely applicable to a variety of insect control programs.
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Here the first reproductive sterility system for the tephritid fruit fly pest, Anastrepha suspensa, is presented, based on lethality primarily limited to embryos heterozygous for a conditional lethal transgene combination. This tetracycline (Tet)-suppressible system uses a driver construct having the promoter from the newly isolated embryo-specific A. suspensa serendipity α gene linked to the Tet-transactivator. This was used to drive expression of a phosphomutated variant of the pro-apoptotic cell death gene, hid, from A. ludens, that was isolated, based on its identity to A. suspensa hid. The Alhid(Ala2) variant was shown to have the highest cell death activity in an in vitro A. suspensa cell death assay compared to the orthologous genes Ashid, Dmhid, and the variant Dmhid(Ala5). These cell death assays also allowed a determination of the most-efficient driver-effector cassette combinations for use in A. suspensa transformants, resulting in two hybrid strains exhibiting 100% lethality. One strain was 96% lethal in embryos in the absence of tetracycline, with none surviving past the first larval instar, which is critical for pests that are most damaging in late-larval stages. We demonstrate that the isolation and in vitro validation of species-specific promoters and lethal effector genes can greatly improve the efficiency of creating high-performance conditional lethality strains that may be extended to other insect pest species.
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CRISPR/Cas9 gene drive (CGD) promises a highly adaptable approach for spreading genetically engineered alleles throughout a species, even if those alleles impair reproductive success. CGD has been shown to be effective in laboratory crosses of insects, yet it remains unclear to what extent potential resistance mechanisms will affect the dynamics of this process in large natural populations. Here we develop a comprehensive population genetic framework for modeling CGD dynamics, which incorporates potential resistance mechanisms as well as random genetic drift. Using this framework, we calculate the probability that resistance against CGD evolves from standing genetic variation, de novo mutation of wildtype alleles, or cleavage-repair by nonhomologous end joining (NHEJ) -- a likely byproduct of CGD itself. We show that resistance to standard CGD approaches should evolve almost inevitably in most natural populations, unless repair of CGD-induced cleavage via NHEJ can be effectively suppressed, or resistance costs are on par with those of the driver. The key factor determining the probability that resistance evolves is the overall rate at which resistance alleles arise at the population level by mutation or NHEJ. By contrast, the conversion efficiency of the driver, its fitness cost, and its introduction frequency have only minor impact. Our results shed light on strategies that could facilitate the engineering of drivers with lower resistance potential, and motivate the possibility to embrace resistance as a possible mechanism for controlling a CGD approach. This study highlights the need for careful modeling of the population dynamics of CGD prior to the actual release of a driver construct into the wild.
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The serendipity α (sry α) cellularisation gene is only transcribed at the blastoderm stage, when this morphogenetic event takes place. We show that a 95 bp sry α upstream region is sufficient for blastoderm-specific expression of a lacZ reporter gene. This region encompasses four nucleotide motifs (I–IV, 5′ to 3′) conserved at similar relative positions in several Drosophila species. Removal of motif I leads to ectopic expression of lacZ in precursor cells of the PNS. Deletion of motif IV decreases the level of lacZ transcripts and modifies their banded pattern of accumulation late in cycle 14, whereas deletion of motifs II and III abolishes the sry α promoter activity. Motif III includes a consensus recognition site for b-HLH proteins. A point mutation in this E-box both severely reduces lacZ expression at blastoderm and prevents its ectopic expression in the PNS upon deleting motif I. These two effects depend upon da+ activity, suggesting that daughterless may positively control sry α transcription.