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Host Cell Transcriptional Tuning with CRISPR/dCas9 to Mitigate the Effects of Toxin Exposure

Metzger, D;Miller, K;Lyon, W;Migliozzi, R;Pangburn, HA;Saldanha, R;

Anthrax infection is caused byBacillus anthracis, a bacterium that once established within the host releases lethal toxin (LeTx). Anthrax LeTx is internalized by the capillary morphogenesis protein 2/anthrax toxin receptor 2 (CMG2/ANTXR2) cell surface receptor on mammalian cells. Once inside the cell, LeTx cleaves mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), ultimately leading to cell death. Previous reports have shown that decreased expression of ANTXR2 reduces cell susceptibility to LeTx. By ablating the ANTXR2 gene in cells in vitro, we observed complete resistance to LeTx-induced cell death. Here, we directed CRISPR/dCas9-based tools to the ANTXR2 promoter to modulate ANTXR2 expression without altering the underlying gene sequence in human cell lines that express the receptor at high levels. We hypothesized that downregulating the expression of the ANTXR2 gene at the genomic level would mitigate the impact of toxin exposure. In one epigenetic editing approach, we employed the fusion of DNMT3A DNA methyltransferase and dCas9 (dCas9-DNMT3A) to methylate CpGs within the CpG island of the ANTXR2 promoter and found this repressed ANTXR2 gene expression resulting in significant resistance to LeTx-induced cell death. Furthermore, by multiplexing gRNAs to direct dCas9-DNMT3A to multiple sites in the ANTXR2 promoter, we applied a broader distribution of CpG methylation along the gene promoter resulting in enhanced repression and resistance to LeTx. In parallel, we directed the dCas9-KRAB-MeCP2 transcriptional repressor to the ANTXR2 promoter to quickly and robustly repress ANTXR2 expression. With this approach, in as little as two weeks, we created resistance to LeTx at a similar level to ANTXR2 gene-ablated cells. Overall, we present a transcriptional tuning approach to inhibit the effects of LeTx and provide a framework to repress toxin-binding cell surface receptors.