The off-target activity of the CRISPR-associated nuclease Cas9 is a potential concern for therapeutic genome editing applications. Although high-fidelity Cas9 variants have been engineered, they exhibit varying efficiencies and have residual off-target effects, limiting their applicability. Here, we show that CRISPR hybrid RNA-DNA (chRDNA) guides provide an effective approach to increase Cas9 specificity while preserving on-target editing activity. Across multiple genomic targets in primary human T cells, we show that 2'-deoxynucleotide (dnt) positioning affects guide activity and specificity in a target-dependent manner and that this can be used to engineer chRDNA guides with substantially reduced off-target effects. Crystal structures of DNA-bound Cas9-chRDNA complexes reveal distorted guide-target duplex geometry and allosteric modulation of Cas9 conformation. These structural effects increase specificity by perturbing DNA hybridization and modulating Cas9 activation kinetics to disfavor binding and cleavage of off-target substrates. Overall, these results pave the way for utilizing customized chRDNAs in clinical applications.
Keywords: CRISPR-Cas; CRISRP hybrid RNA-DNA; Cas9; chRDNA; off-target editing.
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