Background: CRISPR/Cas (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated nucleases) is a powerful component of the prokaryotic immune system that has been adapted for targeted genetic engineering in higher organisms. A key element of CRISPR/Cas is the "guide" RNA (gRNA) that is ~20 nucleotides (nts) in length and designed to be complementary to the intended target site. An integral requirement of the CRISPR/Cas system is that the target site be followed by a protospacer adjacent motif (PAM). Care needs to be exercised during gRNA design to avoid unintended ("off-target") interactions.
Results: We designed and implemented the Off-Spotter algorithm to assist with the design of optimal gRNAs. When presented with a candidate gRNA sequence and a PAM, Off-Spotter quickly and exhaustively identifies all genomic sites that satisfy the PAM constraint and are identical or nearly-identical to the provided gRNA. Off-Spotter achieves its extreme performance through purely algorithmic means and not through hardware accelerators such as graphical processing units (GPUs). Off-Spotter also allows the user to identify on-the-fly how many and which nucleotides of the gRNA comprise the "seed". Off-Spotter's output includes a histogram showing the number of potential off-targets as a function of the number of mismatches. The output also includes for each potential off-target the site's genomic location, a human genome browser hyperlink to the corresponding location, genomic annotation in the vicinity of the off-target, GC content, etc.
Conclusion: Off-Spotter is very fast and flexible and can help in the design of optimal gRNAs by providing several PAM choices, a run-time definition of the seed and of the allowed number of mismatches, and a flexible output interface that allows sorting of the results, optional viewing/hiding of columns, etc. A key element of Off-Spotter is that it does not have a rigid definition of the seed: instead, the user can declare both the seed's location and extent on-the-fly. We expect that this flexibility in combination with Off-Spotter's speed and richly annotated output will enable experimenters to interactively and quickly explore different scenarios and gRNA possibilities.