CRISPR-Cas9 conformational activation as elucidated from enhanced molecular simulations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jul 11;114(28):7260-7265. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1707645114. Epub 2017 Jun 26.


CRISPR-Cas9 has become a facile genome editing technology, yet the structural and mechanistic features underlying its function are unclear. Here, we perform extensive molecular simulations in an enhanced sampling regime, using a Gaussian-accelerated molecular dynamics (GaMD) methodology, which probes displacements over hundreds of microseconds to milliseconds, to reveal the conformational dynamics of the endonuclease Cas9 during its activation toward catalysis. We disclose the conformational transition of Cas9 from its apo form to the RNA-bound form, suggesting a mechanism for RNA recruitment in which the domain relocations cause the formation of a positively charged cavity for nucleic acid binding. GaMD also reveals the conformation of a catalytically competent Cas9, which is prone for catalysis and whose experimental characterization is still limited. We show that, upon DNA binding, the conformational dynamics of the HNH domain triggers the formation of the active state, explaining how the HNH domain exerts a conformational control domain over DNA cleavage [Sternberg SH et al. (2015) Nature, 527, 110-113]. These results provide atomic-level information on the molecular mechanism of CRISPR-Cas9 that will inspire future experimental investigations aimed at fully clarifying the biophysics of this unique genome editing machinery and at developing new tools for nucleic acid manipulation based on CRISPR-Cas9.

Keywords: RNA dynamics; enhanced sampling; free energy; gene regulation; protein–nucleic acid interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer
  • Gene Editing*
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Normal Distribution
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Nucleic Acids / chemistry
  • Protein Domains
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA, Guide, Kinetoplastida / metabolism
  • Streptococcus pyogenes / metabolism
  • Thermodynamics


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Nucleic Acids
  • Proteins
  • RNA, Guide
  • RNA