Research ArticleMICROBIOLOGY

Unexpected evolutionary benefit to phages imparted by bacterial CRISPR-Cas9

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Science Advances  14 Feb 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 2, eaar4134
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar4134

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Bacteria and bacteriophages arm themselves with various defensive and counterdefensive mechanisms to protect their own genome and degrade the other’s. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat)–Cas (CRISPR-associated) is an adaptive bacterial defense mechanism that recognizes short stretches of invading phage genome and destroys it by nuclease attack. Unexpectedly, we discovered that the CRISPR-Cas system might also accelerate phage evolution. When Escherichia coli bacteria containing CRISPR-Cas9 were infected with phage T4, its cytosine hydroxymethylated and glucosylated genome was cleaved poorly by Cas9 nuclease, but the continuing CRISPR-Cas9 pressure led to rapid evolution of mutants that accumulated even by the time a single plaque was formed. The mutation frequencies are, remarkably, approximately six orders of magnitude higher than the spontaneous mutation frequency in the absence of CRISPR pressure. Our findings lead to the hypothesis that the CRISPR-Cas might be a double-edged sword, providing survival advantages to both bacteria and phages, leading to their coevolution and abundance on Earth.

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