Cas4 Nucleases Can Effect Specific Integration of CRISPR Spacers

J Bacteriol. 2019 May 22;201(12):e00747-18. doi: 10.1128/JB.00747-18. Print 2019 Jun 15.


Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)-Cas systems incorporate short DNA fragments from invasive genetic elements into host CRISPR arrays in order to generate host immunity. Recently, we demonstrated that the Csa3a regulator protein triggers CCN protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM)-dependent CRISPR spacer acquisition in the subtype I-A CRISPR-Cas system of Sulfolobus islandicus However, the mechanisms underlying specific protospacer selection and spacer insertion remained unclear. Here, we demonstrate that two Cas4 family proteins (Cas4 and Csa1) have essential roles (i) in recognizing the 5' PAM and 3' nucleotide motif of protospacers and (ii) in determining both the spacer length and its orientation. Furthermore, we identify amino acid residues of the Cas4 proteins that facilitate these functions. Overexpression of the Cas4 and Csa1 proteins, and also that of an archaeal virus-encoded Cas4 protein, resulted in strongly reduced adaptation efficiency, and the former proteins yielded a high incidence of PAM-dependent atypical spacer integration or of PAM-independent spacer integration. We further demonstrated that in plasmid challenge experiments, overexpressed Cas4-mediated defective spacer acquisition in turn potentially enabled targeted DNA to escape subtype I-A CRISPR-Cas interference. In summary, these results define the specific involvement of diverse Cas4 proteins in in vivo CRISPR spacer acquisition. Furthermore, we provide support for an anti-CRISPR role for virus-encoded Cas4 proteins that involves compromising CRISPR-Cas interference activity by hindering spacer acquisition.IMPORTANCE The Cas4 family endonuclease is an essential component of the adaptation module in many variants of CRISPR-Cas adaptive immunity systems. The CrenarchaeotaSulfolobus islandicus REY15A carries two cas4 genes (cas4 and csa1) linked to the CRISPR arrays. Here, we demonstrate that Cas4 and Csa1 are essential to CRISPR spacer acquisition in this organism. Both proteins specify the upstream and downstream conserved nucleotide motifs of the protospacers and define the spacer length and orientation in the acquisition process. Conserved amino acid residues, in addition to those recently reported, were identified to be important for these functions. More importantly, overexpression of the Sulfolobus viral Cas4 abolished spacer acquisition, providing support for an anti-CRISPR role for virus-encoded Cas4 proteins that inhibit spacer acquisition.

Keywords: CRISPR-Cas; Cas4; Sulfolobus; spacer acquisition; virus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaeal Viruses
  • CRISPR-Associated Proteins / genetics*
  • Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats*
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Endonucleases / genetics*
  • Endonucleases / metabolism
  • Sulfolobus / enzymology*
  • Sulfolobus / genetics*
  • Viral Proteins


  • CRISPR-Associated Proteins
  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Viral Proteins
  • Endonucleases