Identification of orphan ligand-receptor relationships using a cell-based CRISPRa enrichment screening platform

Elife. 2022 Sep 30:11:e81398. doi: 10.7554/eLife.81398.


Secreted proteins, which include cytokines, hormones, and growth factors, are extracellular ligands that control key signaling pathways mediating cell-cell communication within and between tissues and organs. Many drugs target secreted ligands and their cell surface receptors. Still, there are hundreds of secreted human proteins that either have no identified receptors ('orphans') or are likely to act through cell surface receptors that have not yet been characterized. Discovery of secreted ligand-receptor interactions by high-throughput screening has been problematic, because the most commonly used high-throughput methods for protein-protein interaction (PPI) screening are not optimized for extracellular interactions. Cell-based screening is a promising technology for the deorphanization of ligand-receptor interactions, because multimerized ligands can enrich for cells expressing low affinity cell surface receptors, and such methods do not require purification of receptor extracellular domains. Here, we present a proteo-genomic cell-based CRISPR activation (CRISPRa) enrichment screening platform employing customized pooled cell surface receptor sgRNA libraries in combination with a magnetic bead selection-based enrichment workflow for rapid, parallel ligand-receptor deorphanization. We curated 80 potentially high-value orphan secreted proteins and ultimately screened 20 secreted ligands against two cell sgRNA libraries with targeted expression of all single-pass (TM1) or multi-pass transmembrane (TM2+) receptors by CRISPRa. We identified previously unknown interactions in 12 of these screens, and validated several of them using surface plasmon resonance and/or cell binding assays. The newly deorphanized ligands include three receptor protein tyrosine phosphatase (RPTP) ligands and a chemokine-like protein that binds to killer immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs). These new interactions provide a resource for future investigations of interactions between the human-secreted and membrane proteomes.

Keywords: CRISPR; biochemistry; cell biology; chemical biology; human; ligand; protein-protein interaction; receptors; screen; secreted proteome.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats*
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Hormones
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulins / metabolism
  • Ligands
  • Protein Binding / physiology
  • Proteome* / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism


  • Ligands
  • Proteome
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • Cytokines
  • Hormones
  • Immunoglobulins