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Scientists discover new CRISPR-Cas systems

Scientists from Skoltech (Russia), the National Institutes of Health (NIH; USA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; USA) have discovered six new CRISPR-Cas subtypes. Their discoveries could lead the way to the development of innovative tools for genome editing and regulation. The results of the study – which was led by Skoltech Professor Konstantin Severinov, MIT Professor Feng Zhang and NIH Senior Investigator Eugene Koonin – were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

CRISPR-Cas technology is revolutionizing the field of genomics, allowing researchers to target specific regions of the genome and edit DNA at precise locations. CRISPR-Cas systems are used by prokaryotes to defend against invading viruses. Due to the evolutionary arms race between viruses and bacteria, an incredible diversity of СRISPR-Cas systems exists in nature.

In the new study, scientists performed a large-scale bioinformatical analysis and identified previously unknown types of CRISPR-Cas systems that may have a broad range of uses in the field of genome editing. For example, the newly discovered VI-B CRISPR-Cas system has novel proteins that may regulate its activity. The function of this predicted system has already been confirmed experimentally. Another discovery, the V-U system, contains comparatively small Cas proteins. This makes it highly attractive for genetic engineering purposes because it is relatively easy for bioengineers to work with small proteins and deliver them to various kinds of cells.

“This project was a follow-up to a study we previously published that was devoted to new unique CRISPR-Cas types,” said Sergey Shmakov, the study’s lead author and a PhD student at Skoltech. “For our new study, we performed an exhaustive, semi-automated search of genomic databases around hallmark components of CRISPR-Cas systems. This helped us find interesting, new systems. We found that some genes had unusual properties that shed a new light on previously discovered systems. Our work covered most of the genomic data that’s currently available, which gives us confidence that we now know all the major CRISPR-Cas players in prokaryotes.” For his achievements Shmakov was awarded both the NIH Director’s Award and the Skoltech Presidential Award in 2016.

The groups led by Professors Severinov, Koonin and Zhang are currently searching for new CRISPR-Cas systems and performing detailed studies of previously discovered systems. Their studies are supported by a NextGeneration research grant that provides funding for Skoltech and MIT joint research projects.

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