A detailed cell-free transcription-translation-based assay to decipher CRISPR protospacer-adjacent motifs

Colin S. Maxwell, Thomas Jacobsen, Ryan Marshall, Vincent Noireaux, Chase L. Beisel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The RNA-guided nucleases derived from the CRISPR-Cas systems in bacteria and archaea have found numerous applications in biotechnology, including genome editing, imaging, and gene regulation. However, the discovery of novel Cas nucleases has outpaced their characterization and subsequent exploitation. A key step in characterizing Cas nucleases is determining which protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM) sequences they recognize. Here, we report advances to an in vitro method based on an E. coli cell-free transcription-translation system (TXTL) to rapidly elucidate PAMs recognized by Cas nucleases. The method obviates the need for cloning Cas nucleases or gRNAs, does not require the purification of protein or RNA, and can be performed in less than a day. To advance our previously published method, we incorporated an internal GFP cleavage control to assess the extent of library cleavage as well as Sanger sequencing of the cleaved library to assess PAM depletion prior to next-generation sequencing. We also detail the methods needed to construct all relevant DNA constructs, and how to troubleshoot the assay. We finally demonstrate the technique by determining PAM sequences recognized by the Neisseria meningitidis Cas9, revealing subtle sequence requirements of this highly specific PAM. The overall method offers a rapid means to identify PAMs recognized by diverse CRISPR nucleases, with the potential to greatly accelerate our ability to characterize and harness novel CRISPR nucleases across their many uses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)48-57
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this project was provided through DARPA (contract HR0011-16-C-01-34 to V.N. and C.L.B.), the NIH (1R35GM119561-01 to C.L.B.), and the US Department of Education and the GAANN fellowship (P200A160061 to T.J.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Inc.


  • Cas12a
  • Cas9
  • PAM
  • TXTL
  • crRNA
  • sgRNA


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