Our understanding of the genetic mechanisms that underlie biological processes has relied extensively on loss-of-function (LOF) analyses. LOF methods target DNA, RNA or protein to reduce or to ablate gene function. By analysing the phenotypes that are caused by these perturbations the wild-type function of genes can be elucidated. Although all LOF methods reduce gene activity, the choice of approach (for example, mutagenesis, CRISPR-based gene editing, RNA interference, morpholinos or pharmacological inhibition) can have a major effect on phenotypic outcomes. Interpretation of the LOF phenotype must take into account the biological process that is targeted by each method. The practicality and efficiency of LOF methods also vary considerably between model systems. We describe parameters for choosing the optimal combination of method and system, and for interpreting phenotypes within the constraints of each method.
The rapid rise of CRISPR as a technology for genome engineering and related research applications has created a need for algorithms and associated online tools that facilitate design of on-target and effective guide RNAs (gRNAs). Here, we review the state-of-the-art in CRISPR gRNA design for research applications of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, including knockout, activation and inhibition. Notably, achieving good gRNA design is not solely dependent on innovations in CRISPR technology. Good design and design tools also rely on availability of high-quality genome sequence and gene annotations, as well as on availability of accumulated data regarding off-targets and effectiveness metrics. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
A number of approaches for Cas9-mediated transcriptional activation have recently been developed, allowing target genes to be overexpressed from their endogenous genomic loci. However, these approaches have thus far been limited to cell culture, and this technique has not been demonstrated in vivo in any animal. The technique involving the fewest separate components, and therefore the most amenable to in vivo applications, is the dCas9-VPR system, where a nuclease-dead Cas9 is fused to a highly active chimeric activator domain. In this study, we characterize the dCas9-VPR system in Drosophila cells and in vivo. We show that this system can be used in cell culture to upregulate a range of target genes, singly and in multiplex, and that a single guide RNA upstream of the transcription start site can activate high levels of target transcription. We observe marked heterogeneity in guide RNA efficacy for any given gene, and we confirm that transcription is inhibited by guide RNAs binding downstream of the transcription start site. To demonstrate one application of this technique in cells, we used dCas9-VPR to identify target genes for Twist and Snail, two highly conserved transcription factors that cooperate during Drosophila mesoderm development. In addition, we simultaneously activated both Twist and Snail to identify synergistic responses to this physiologically relevant combination. Finally, we show that dCas9-VPR can activate target genes and cause dominant phenotypes in vivo, providing the first demonstration of dCas9 activation in a multicellular animal. Transcriptional activation using dCas9-VPR thus offers a simple and broadly applicable technique for a variety of overexpression studies.