Selected Publications


The ability to engineer natural proteins is pivotal to a future, pragmatic biology. CRISPR proteins have revolutionized genome modification, yet the CRISPR-Cas9 scaffold is not ideal for fusions or activation by cellular triggers. Here, we show that a topological rearrangement of Cas9 using circular permutation provides an advanced platform for RNA-guided genome modification and protection. Through systematic interrogation, we find that protein termini can be positioned adjacent to bound DNA, offering a straightforward mechanism for strategically fusing functional domains. Additionally, circular permutation enabled protease-sensing Cas9s (ProCas9s), a unique class of single-molecule effectors possessing programmable inputs and outputs. ProCas9s can sense a wide range of proteases, and we demonstrate that ProCas9 can orchestrate a cellular response to pathogen-associated protease activity. Together, these results provide a toolkit of safer and more efficient genome-modifying enzymes and molecular recorders for the advancement of precision genome engineering in research, agriculture, and biomedicine.

Benjamin L Oakes, Dana C Nadler, Avi Flamholz, Christof Fellmann, Brett T Staahl, Jennifer A Doudna, David F Savage

The clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-associated protein Cas9 from Streptococcus pyogenes is an RNA-guided DNA endonuclease with widespread utility for genome modification. However, the structural constraints limiting the engineering of Cas9 have not been determined. Here we experimentally profile Cas9 using randomized insertional mutagenesis and delineate hotspots in the structure capable of tolerating insertions

Benjamin L Oakes*, Danny F Xia*, Elizabeth F Rowland*, Denise J Xu, Irina Ankoudinova, Jennifer S Borchardt, Lei Zhang, Patrick Li, Jeffrey C Miller, Edward J Rebar, Marcus B Noyes

Engineered nucleases have transformed biological research and offer great therapeutic potential by enabling the straightforward modification of desired genomic sequences. While many nuclease platforms have proven functional, all can produce unanticipated off-target lesions and have difficulty discriminating between homologous sequences, limiting their therapeutic application. Here we describe a multi-reporter selection system that allows the screening of large protein libraries to uncover variants able to discriminate between sequences with substantial homology.

Benjamin L Oakes, Dana C Nadler, David F Savage

In this work, we develop a platform for constructing novel proteins to address these open questions. We demonstrate methods to either screen or select active Cas9 mutants and use the screening technique to isolate functional Cas9 variants with a heterologous PDZ domain inserted directly into the protein. As a proof of concept, these methods lay the groundwork for the future construction of diverse Cas9 proteins. Straightforward and accessible techniques for genetic editing are helping to elucidate biology in new and exciting ways; a platform to engineer new functionalities into Cas9 will help forge the next generation of genome modifying tools.

Mitchell R O’Connell, Benjamin L Oakes, Samuel H Sternberg, Alexandra East-Seletsky, Matias Kaplan, Jennifer A Doudna 

The CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 is an RNA-guided DNA endonuclease that uses RNA–DNA complementarity to identify target sites for sequence-specific double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) cleavage. Cas9 has proven to be a versatile tool for genome engineering and gene regulation in a large range of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell types, and in whole organisms, but it has been thought to be incapable of targeting RNA. Here we show that Cas9 binds with high affinity to single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) targets matching the Cas9-associated guide RNA sequence when the PAM is presented in trans as a separate DNA oligonucleotide.

R Scott McIsaac*, Benjamin L Oakes*, Xin Wang, Krysta A Dummit, David Botstein, Marcus B Noyes

A general method for the dynamic control of single gene expression in eukaryotes, with no off-target effects, is a long-sought tool for molecular and systems biologists. We engineered two artificial transcription factors (ATFs) that contain Cys 2 His 2 zinc-finger DNA-binding domains of either the mouse transcription factor Zif268 (9 bp of specificity) or a rationally designed array of four zinc fingers (12 bp of specificity). These domains were expressed as fusions to the human estrogen receptor and VP16 activation domain. The ATFs can rapidly induce a single gene driven by a synthetic promoter in response to introduction of an otherwise inert hormone with no detectable off-target effects.

Anton V Persikov, Joshua L Wetzel, Elizabeth F Rowland, Benjamin L Oakes, Denise J Xu, Mona Singh, Marcus B Noyes

Cys2His2 zinc fingers (C2H2-ZFs) comprise the largest class of metazoan DNA-binding domains. Despite this domain's well-defined DNA-recognition interface, and its successful use in the design of chimeric proteins capable of targeting genomic regions of interest, much remains unknown about its DNA-binding landscape. To help bridge this gap in fundamental knowledge and to provide a resource for design-oriented applications, we screened large synthetic protein libraries to select binding C2H2-ZF domains for each possible three base pair target. The resulting data consist of >160 000 unique domain–DNA interactions and comprise the most comprehensive investigation of C2H2-ZF DNA-binding interactions to date.

Anton V Persikov, Elizabeth F Rowland, Benjamin L Oakes, Mona Singh, Marcus B Noyes

The Cys2His2 zinc finger (ZF) is the most frequently found sequence-specific DNA-binding domain in eukaryotic proteins. The ZF’s modular protein–DNA interface has also served as a platform for genome engineering applications. Despite decades of intense study, a predictive understanding of the DNA-binding specificities of either natural or engineered ZF domains remains elusive. To help fill this gap, we developed an integrated experimental-computational approach to enrich and recover distinct groups of ZFs that bind common targets.

©2017 by Benjamin L. Oakes. 


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