CRISPR-Cas in mobile genetic elements: counter-defence and beyond

Nat Rev Microbiol. 2019 Aug;17(8):513-525. doi: 10.1038/s41579-019-0204-7.


The principal function of CRISPR-Cas systems in archaea and bacteria is defence against mobile genetic elements (MGEs), including viruses, plasmids and transposons. However, the relationships between CRISPR-Cas and MGEs are far more complex. Several classes of MGE contributed to the origin and evolution of CRISPR-Cas, and, conversely, CRISPR-Cas systems and their components were recruited by various MGEs for functions that remain largely uncharacterized. In this Analysis article, we investigate and substantially expand the range of CRISPR-Cas components carried by MGEs. Three groups of Tn7-like transposable elements encode 'minimal' type I CRISPR-Cas derivatives capable of target recognition but not cleavage, and another group encodes an inactivated type V variant. These partially inactivated CRISPR-Cas variants might mediate guide RNA-dependent integration of the respective transposons. Numerous plasmids and some prophages encode type IV systems, with similar predicted properties, that appear to contribute to competition among plasmids and between plasmids and viruses. Many prokaryotic viruses also carry CRISPR mini-arrays, some of which recognize other viruses and are implicated in inter-virus conflicts, and solitary repeat units, which could inhibit host CRISPR-Cas systems.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / genetics
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteriophages / genetics
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems*
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal*
  • Interspersed Repetitive Sequences*
  • Plasmids
  • Recombination, Genetic*


  • DNA Transposable Elements