A modular dCas9-SunTag DNMT3A epigenome editing system overcomes pervasive off-target activity of direct fusion dCas9-DNMT3A constructs

Christian Pflueger, Dennis Tan, Tessa Swain, Trung Viet Nguyen, Jahnvi Pflueger, Christian Nefzger, Jose M Polo, Ethan Ford, Ryan Lister

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

50 Citations (Scopus)


DNA methylation is a covalent modification of the genome that plays important roles in genome regulation and vertebrate development. Although detection of this modification in the genome has been possible for several decades, the ability to deliberately and specifically manipulate local DNA methylation states in the genome has been extremely limited. Consequently, this has impeded the direct determination of the consequence of DNA methylation on transcriptional regulation and transcription factor binding in the native chromatin context. Thus, highly specific targeted epigenome editing tools are needed to address this outstanding question. Recent adaptations of genome editing technologies, such as the fusion of the DNMT3A methyltransferase catalytic domain to catalytically inactive Cas9 (dC9-D3A), have aimed to provide new tools for altering DNA methylation at desired loci. Here, we performed a deeper analysis of the performance of these tools, revealing consistent off-target binding events and DNA methylation deposition in the genome, limiting the capacity of these tools to unambiguously assess the functional consequences of DNA methylation. To address this, we developed a modular dCas9-SunTag (dC9Sun-D3A) system that can recruit multiple DNMT3A catalytic domains to a target site for editing DNA-methylation. dC9Sun-D3A is tunable, specific and exhibits much higher induction of DNA methylation at target sites than the dC9-D3A direct fusion protein. Importantly, genome-wide characterization of dC9Sun-D3A binding sites and DNA methylation revealed minimal off-target protein binding and induction of DNA methylation with dC9Sun-D3A, compared to pervasive off-target binding and methylation by the dC9-D3A direct fusion construct. Furthermore, we used dC9Sun-D3A to test the impact of DNA methylation upon the DNA binding of CTCF and NRF1 upon targeted methylation of their core binding sites, demonstrating the binding sensitivity of these proteins to DNA methylation in situ. Overall, this modular dC9Sun-D3A system enables precise DNA methylation deposition with the lowest amount of off-target DNA methylation reported to date, allowing accurate functional determination of the role of DNA methylation at single loci.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1193-1206
JournalGenome Research
Issue number8
Early online date15 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018

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