RNA structure modulates Cas13 activity and enables mismatch detection

bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2023 Nov 7:2023.10.05.560533. doi: 10.1101/2023.10.05.560533.


The RNA-targeting CRISPR nuclease Cas13 has emerged as a powerful tool for applications ranging from nucleic acid detection to transcriptome engineering and RNA imaging1-6. Cas13 is activated by the hybridization of a CRISPR RNA (crRNA) to a complementary single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) protospacer in a target RNA1,7. Though Cas13 is not activated by double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) in vitro, it paradoxically demonstrates robust RNA targeting in environments where the vast majority of RNAs are highly structured2,8. Understanding Cas13's mechanism of binding and activation will be key to improving its ability to detect and perturb RNA; however, the mechanism by which Cas13 binds structured RNAs remains unknown9. Here, we systematically probe the mechanism of LwaCas13a activation in response to RNA structure perturbations using a massively multiplexed screen. We find that there are two distinct sequence-independent modes by which secondary structure affects Cas13 activity: structure in the protospacer region competes with the crRNA and can be disrupted via a strand-displacement mechanism, while structure in the region 3' to the protospacer has an allosteric inhibitory effect. We leverage the kinetic nature of the strand displacement process to improve Cas13-based RNA detection, enhancing mismatch discrimination by up to 50-fold and enabling sequence-agnostic mutation identification at low (<1%) allele frequencies. Our work sets a new standard for CRISPR-based nucleic acid detection and will enable intelligent and secondary-structure-guided target selection while also expanding the range of RNAs available for targeting with Cas13.

Keywords: CRISPR; Cas13; RNA detection; RNA structure; strand displacement.

Publication types

  • Preprint