Upper Bound on the Mutational Burden Imposed by a CRISPR-Cas9 Gene-Drive Element

Michael S. Overton, Sean E. Guy, Xingsen Chen, Alena Martsul, Krypton Carolino, Omar S. Akbari, Justin R. Meyer, Sergey Kryazhimskiy,  bioRxiv,  2023.

CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives (CCGDs) are powerful tools for genetic control of wild populations, useful for eradication of disease vectors, conservation of endangered species and other applications. However, Cas9 alone and in a complex with gRNA can cause double-stranded DNA breaks at off-target sites, which could increase the mutational load and lead to loss of heterozygosity (LOH). These undesired effects raise potential concerns about the long-term evolutionary safety of CCGDs, but the magnitude of these effects is unknown. To estimate how the presence of a CCGD or a Cas9 alone in the genome affects the rates of LOH events and de novo mutations, we carried out a mutation accumulation experiment in yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Despite its substantial statistical power, our experiment revealed no detectable effect of CCGD or Cas9 alone on the genome-wide rates of mutations or LOH events, suggesting that these rates are affected by less than 30%. Nevertheless, we found that Cas9 caused a slight but significant shift towards more interstitial and fewer terminal LOH events, and the CCGD caused a significant difference in the distribution of LOH events on Chromosome V. Taken together, our results show that these genetic elements impose a weak and likely localized additional mutational burden in the yeast model. Although the mutagenic effects of CCGDs need to be further evaluated in other systems, our results suggest that the effect of CCGDs on off-target mutation rates and genetic diversity may be acceptable.

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