Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Mechanism of duplex DNA destabilization by RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease during target interrogation.

PMID 28484024


The prokaryotic clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-associated 9 (Cas9) endonuclease cleaves double-stranded DNA sequences specified by guide RNA molecules and flanked by a protospacer adjacent motif (PAM) and is widely used for genome editing in various organisms. The RNA-programmed Cas9 locates the target site by scanning genomic DNA. We sought to elucidate the mechanism of initial DNA interrogation steps that precede the pairing of target DNA with guide RNA. Using fluorometric and biochemical assays, we studied Cas9/guide RNA complexes with model DNA substrates that mimicked early intermediates on the pathway to the final Cas9/guide RNA-DNA complex. The results show that Cas9/guide RNA binding to PAM favors separation of a few PAM-proximal protospacer base pairs allowing initial target interrogation by guide RNA. The duplex destabilization is mediated, in part, by Cas9/guide RNA affinity for unpaired segments of nontarget strand DNA close to PAM. Furthermore, our data indicate that the entry of double-stranded DNA beyond a short threshold distance from PAM into the Cas9/single-guide RNA (sgRNA) interior is hindered. We suggest that the interactions unfavorable for duplex DNA binding promote DNA bending in the PAM-proximal region during early steps of Cas9/guide RNA-DNA complex formation, thus additionally destabilizing the protospacer duplex. The mechanism that emerges from our analysis explains how the Cas9/sgRNA complex is able to locate the correct target sequence efficiently while interrogating numerous nontarget sequences associated with correct PAMs.