A universal method for sensitive and cell-free detection of CRISPR-associated nucleases

Chem Sci. 2019 Jan 16;10(9):2653-2662. doi: 10.1039/c8sc03426e. eCollection 2019 Mar 7.


A multitude of biological applications for CRISPR-associated (Cas) nucleases have propelled the development of robust cell-based methods for quantitation of on- and off-target activities of these nucleases. However, emerging applications of these nucleases require cell-free methods that are simple, sensitive, cost effective, high throughput, multiplexable, and generalizable to all classes of Cas nucleases. Current methods for cell-free detection are cumbersome, expensive, or require sophisticated sequencing technologies, hindering their widespread application beyond the field of life sciences. Developing such cell-free assays is challenging for multiple reasons, including that Cas nucleases are single-turnover enzymes that must be present in large excess over their substrate and that different classes of Cas nucleases exhibit wildly different operating mechanisms. Here, we report the development of a cell-free method wherein Cas nuclease activity is amplified via an in vitro transcription reaction that produces a fluorescent RNA:small-molecule adduct. We demonstrate that our method is sensitive, detecting activity from low nanomolar concentrations of several families of Cas nucleases, and can be conducted in a high-throughput microplate fashion with a simple fluorescent-based readout. We provide a mathematical framework for quantifying the activities of these nucleases and demonstrate two applications of our method, namely the development of a logic circuit and the characterization of an anti-CRISPR protein. We anticipate our method will be valuable to those studying Cas nucleases and will allow the application of Cas nuclease beyond the field of life sciences.