“Current methods rely on events that happen naturally during meiosis,” explained study coauthor Leonid Kruglyak of UCLA. “Whatever rate those events occur at, you’re kind of stuck with. Our idea was that using CRISPR, we can generate those events at will, exactly where we want them, in large numbers, and in a way that’s easy for us to pull out the cells in which they happened.”
Generally, researchers use coinheritance of a trait of interest with specific genetic markers—whose positions are known—to figure out what part of the genome is responsible for a given phenotype. But the procedure often requires impractically large numbers of progeny or generations to observe the few cases in which coinheritance happens to be disrupted informatively. What’s more, the resolution of mapping is limited by the length of the smallest sequence shuffled by recombination—and that sequence could include several genes or gene variants.
“Once you get down to that minimal region, you’re done,” said Kruglyak. “You need to switch to other methods to test every gene and every variant in that region, and that can be anywhere from challenging to impossible.”
But programmable, DNA-cutting champion CRISPR/Cas9 offered an alternative. During mitotic—rather than meiotic—cell division, rare, double-strand breaks in one arm of a chromosome preparing to split are sometimes repaired by a mechanism called homologous recombination. This mechanism uses the other chromosome in the homologous pair to replace the sequence from the break down to the end of the broken arm. Normally, such mitotic recombination happens so rarely as to be impractical for mapping purposes. With CRISPR/Cas9, however, the researchers found that they could direct double-strand breaks to any locus along a chromosome of interest (provided it was heterozygous—to ensure that only one of the chromosomes would be cut), thus controlling the sites of recombination.
Combining this technique with a signal of recombination success, such as a green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene at the tip of one chromosome in the pair, allowed the researchers to pick out cells in which recombination had occurred: if the technique failed, both daughter cells produced by mitotic division would be heterozygous, with one copy of the signal gene each. But if it succeeded, one cell would end up with two copies, and the other cell with none—an outcome called loss of heterozygosity.
“If we get loss of heterozygosity . . . half the cells derived after that loss of heterozygosity event won’t have GFP anymore,” study coauthor Meru Sadhu of UCLA explained. “We search for these cells that don’t have GFP out of the general population of cells.” If these non-fluorescent cells with loss of heterozygosity have the same phenotype as the parent for a trait of interest, then CRISPR/Cas9-targeted recombination missed the responsible gene. If the phenotype is affected, however, then the trait must be linked to a locus in the recombined, now-homozygous region, somewhere between the cut site and the GFP gene.
By systematically making cuts using CRISPR/Cas9 along chromosomes in a hybrid, diploid strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, picking out non-fluorescent cells, and then observing the phenotype, the UCLA team demonstrated that it could rapidly identify the phenotypic contribution of specific gene variants. “We can simply walk along the chromosome and at every [variant] position we can ask, does it matter for the trait we’re studying?” explained Kruglyak.
For example, the team showed that manganese sensitivity—a well-defined phenotypic trait in lab yeast—could be pinpointed using this method to a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in a gene encoding the Pmr1 protein (a manganese transporter).
Jason Moffat, a molecular geneticist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist that researchers had “dreamed about” exploiting these sorts of mechanisms for mapping purposes, but without CRISPR, such techniques were previously out of reach. Until now, “it hasn’t been so easy to actually make double-stranded breaks on one copy of a pair of chromosomes, and then follow loss of heterozygosity in mitosis,” he said, adding that he hopes to see the approach translated into human cell lines.
Applying the technique beyond yeast will be important, agreed cell and developmental biologist Ethan Bier of the University of California, San Diego, because chromosomal repair varies among organisms. “In yeast, they absolutely demonstrate the power of [this method],” he said. “We’ll just have to see how the technology develops in other systems that are going to be far less suited to the technology than yeast. . . . I would like to see it implemented in another system to show that they can get the same oomph out of it in, say, mammalian somatic cells.”
Kruglyak told The Scientist that work in higher organisms, though planned, is still in early stages; currently, his team is working to apply the technique to map loci responsible for trait differences between—rather than within—yeast species.
“We have a much poorer understanding of the differences across species,” Sadhu explained. “Except for a few specific examples, we’re pretty much in the dark there.”
M.J. Sadhu, “CRISPR-directed mitotic recombination enables genetic mapping without crosses,” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaf5124, 2016.