Rationally-engineered reproductive barriers using CRISPR & CRISPRa: an evaluation of the synthetic species concept in Drosophila melanogaster

Waters, AJC, Paolo; Gaboriau, David C. A.; Papathanos, Philippos Aris; Windbichler, Nikolai,  Scientific Reports,  8:13125. 2018.

The ability to erect rationally-engineered reproductive barriers in animal or plant species promises to enable a number of biotechnological applications such as the creation of genetic firewalls, the containment of gene drives or novel population replacement and suppression strategies for genetic control. However, to date no experimental data exist that explores this concept in a multicellular organism. Here we examine the requirements for building artificial reproductive barriers in the metazoan model Drosophila melanogaster by combining CRISPR-based genome editing and transcriptional transactivation (CRISPRa) of the same loci. We directed 13 single guide RNAs (sgRNAs) to the promoters of 7 evolutionary conserved genes and used 11 drivers to conduct a misactivation screen. We identify dominant-lethal activators of the eve locus and find that they disrupt development by strongly activating eve outside its native spatio-temporal context. We employ the same set of sgRNAs to isolate, by genome editing, protective INDELs that render these loci resistant to transactivation without interfering with target gene function. When these sets of genetic components are combined we find that complete synthetic lethality, a prerequisite for most applications, is achievable using this approach. However, our results suggest a steep trade-off between the level and scope of dCas9 expression, the degree of genetic isolation achievable and the resulting impact on fly fitness. The genetic engineering strategy we present here allows the creation of single or multiple reproductive barriers and could be applied to other multicellular organisms such as disease vectors or transgenic organisms of economic importance.