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Biophys J. 2017 Oct 3;113(7):1416-1424. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2017.08.013.

Mechanism of Genome Interrogation: How CRISPR RNA-Guided Cas9 Proteins Locate Specific Targets on DNA.

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Department of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Department of Chemistry and Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, Rice University, Houston, Texas. Electronic address:


The ability to precisely edit and modify a genome opens endless opportunities to investigate fundamental properties of living systems as well as to advance various medical techniques and bioengineering applications. This possibility is now close to reality due to a recent discovery of the adaptive bacterial immune system, which is based on clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-associated proteins (Cas) that utilize RNA to find and cut the double-stranded DNA molecules at specific locations. Here we develop a quantitative theoretical approach to analyze the mechanism of target search on DNA by CRISPR RNA-guided Cas9 proteins, which is followed by a selective cleavage of nucleic acids. It is based on a discrete-state stochastic model that takes into account the most relevant physical-chemical processes in the system. Using a method of first-passage processes, a full dynamic description of the target search is presented. It is found that the location of specific sites on DNA by CRISPR Cas9 proteins is governed by binding first to protospacer adjacent motif sequences on DNA, which is followed by reversible transitions into DNA interrogation states. In addition, the search dynamics is strongly influenced by the off-target cutting. Our theoretical calculations allow us to explain the experimental observations and to give experimentally testable predictions. Thus, the presented theoretical model clarifies some molecular aspects of the genome interrogation by CRISPR RNA-guided Cas9 proteins.

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