Transmitting CRISPRi Circuits through Cell-to-Cell Conjugation

GOAL: To construct a specific gene repression system using CRISPRi that can be efficiently transmitted between cells by conjugation.

What is conjugation?
In nature, bacterial strains rarely exist as distinct populations. Instead, they are almost always found in mixed populations where they compete for resources. Conjugation is a naturally occurring process in bacteria that allows genetic material to be transferred between populations of bacterial cells. This process promotes gene diversity, and in certain situations, provides a competitive advantage for the recipient cell.

By combining CRISPRi and conjugation, we’ve come up with a system that will allow us to specifically target certain populations within a microbiome. To do this, an engineered cell capable of conjugating must be introduced into a microbiome of interest. The engineered cell, or donor cell, is capable of conjugating (proteins necessary for conjugation are contained in the genome) and carries a conjugative plasmid, which codes for a catalytically dead Cas9 (dCas9) protein and guide RNA (gRNA) for a specific gene that is present in the targeted population.

Upon conjugation with the target population, the conjugative plasmid would be transferred. Both dCas9 and gRNA would subsequently be expressed in the recipient cell, and the complex formed will repress the targeted gene specified by the gRNA, shutting down certain cell functions.

For the summer, we used fluorescent proteins to differentiate between our target cell strains and our unaffected cell strains. Our targeted cells will be marked with red fluorescent protein (RFP) while our unaffected cells with be marked with the fluorescent protein, citrine. Both cell strains will receive the conjugative plasmid from the donor. The gRNA-dCAS9 complex will then form and repress the production of RFP in our target cells. The RFP cell strain will no longer be able to fluoresce, since the gRNA in our conjugative plasmid only recognizes a specific site on RFP, while the citrine cell strain will be left unaffected because there is no gRNA in the conjugative plasmid that recognizes citrine.