Increasing HDR by timed inhibition of CDC7, published in Nature Communications

When doing genome editing, fixing sequences by HDR is better than breaking them by making indels. If you really want to break something, you could even use HDR to insert a precise indel or a stop codon. Unfortunately, HDR is relatively inefficient in human cells. Single stranded oligo donors help, but editing the same locus with a double stranded plasmid DNA donor is almost always painful. What’s the bottleneck? We tried to answer this question in a new paper just out in Nature Communications.

To answer this question, Chris Richardson and Beeke Wienert led a superstar team to perform CRISPRi screening while simultaneously editing with a double stranded DNA plasmid donor. The screen itself was performed by Sharon Feng, a superstar undergraduate. Putting everything together was an exciting collaboration with the labs of Bruce Conklin and Alex Marson.

The first set of hits are known homologous recombination factors, such as BRCA1. This gives high confidence that the screen worked as expected. Surprisingly, the same Fanconi Anemia complexes that are required for single stranded oligo HDR are required for plasmid HDR. The FA pathway is thus a core regulator of all forms of HDR!

But we really wanted to know genes could increase HDR if they were removed. Knocking down a gene is hard to do in many contexts. So we focused on genes with known inhibitors. It turns out that small molecule inhibitors of CDC7 give very nice boosts in HDR from both single stranded oligo and plasmid DNA donors. This works for small changes (SNPs), medium changes (adding epitope tags) and even large cargoes (site-targeted transgenes). It also works in a variety of cell types, including hematopoietic stem cells and T cells. Not every cell is created equally, so check out the paper for detailed guidelines.

Our favorite CDC7 inhibitor is XL413, which is non-toxic and quite reversible. This distinguishes it from some other HDR-improving compounds that lead big genomic messes, including polyploidy. Delving into mechanism, CDC7 inhibition leads to loss of MCM2 phosphorylation. Because MCM2 phosphorylation is required for S phase progression, XL413 leads to a longer S phase. This is a magical phase of the cell cycle for HDR, and so our model is that XL413 increases HDR by increasing the amount of time cells are able to do HDR. We tested this with a timing experiment. Hitting cells with Cas9 and then immediately putting them in XL413 leads to increased HDR, because the cells are piling up in S phase at the same time they are repairing the Cas9 damage. But putting cells in XL413 first and then taking them out during editing leads to decreased HDR. This is because the cells all pile up S phase before editing, and then exit into HDR non-permissive cell cycle while Cas9 is doing its thing.

We hope other labs find XL413 to be useful to increase HDR. It’s not a magic bullet and seems to work especially well in hematopoietic lineages and iPSCs. If you try it out in your favorite cells, please let us know your experience!

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