The crystal structure of Cpf1 in complex with CRISPR RNA


The CRISPR–Cas systems, as exemplified by CRISPR–Cas9, are RNA-guided adaptive immune systems used by bacteria and archaea to defend against viral infection1,2,3,4,5,6,7. The CRISPR–Cpf1 system, a new class 2 CRISPR–Cas system, mediates robust DNA interference in human cells1,8,9,10. Although functionally conserved, Cpf1 and Cas9 differ in many aspects including their guide RNAs and substrate specificity. Here we report the 2.38 Å crystal structure of the CRISPR RNA (crRNA)-bound Lachnospiraceae bacterium ND2006 Cpf1 (LbCpf1). LbCpf1 has a triangle-shaped architecture with a large positively charged channel at the centre. Recognized by the oligonucleotide-binding domain of LbCpf1, the crRNA adopts a highly distorted conformation stabilized by extensive intramolecular interactions and the (Mg(H2O)6)2+ ion. The oligonucleotide-binding domain also harbours a looped-out helical domain that is important for LbCpf1 substrate binding. Binding of crRNA or crRNA lacking the guide sequence induces marked conformational changes but no oligomerization of LbCpf1. Our study reveals the crRNA recognition mechanism and provides insight into crRNA-guided substrate binding of LbCpf1, establishing a framework for engineering LbCpf1 to improve its efficiency and specificity for genome editing.

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Figure 1: Triangle-shaped structure of the LbCpf1–crRNA complex.
Figure 2: The distorted conformation of the LbCpf1-bound crRNA is stabilized by extensive intramolecular interactions and (Mg(H2O)6)2+.
Figure 3: Recognition of crRNA by LbCpf1.
Figure 4: LHD is involved in dsDNA binding of LbCpf1.

Accession codes

Primary accessions

Protein Data Bank

Data deposits

The atomic coordinates and structure factors of the LbCpf1-crRNA complex have been deposited in the Protein Data Bank under the accession code 5ID6.


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We thank F. Yu and J. He at Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility for help with data collection. We thank J. Chai for critical reading of the manuscript. We acknowledge the Tsinghua University Branch of China National Center for Protein Sciences Beijing for providing the facility support. This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China grant numbers 31422014, 31450001 and 31300605 to Z.H.

Author information




Z.H. designed the experiments. D.D., K.R. and X.Q. performed the bulk of the experiments. Data were analysed by Z.H., D.D., K.R. and X.Q.; J. Z., M.G., X.G., H. L., N.L., D.Y., C.M., S.W., D.W., B.Z., Y.M., S.F., N.G. and J.W. contributed to some experiments and discussions. Z.H., D.D., K.R. and X.Q. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zhiwei Huang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Structural comparison of the RuvC domains of LbCpf1, SaCas9 and SpyCas9.

Structural superposition of LbCpf1RuvC with SaCas9RuvC (PDB, 5CZZ) and SpyCas9RuvC (PDB, 4UN3). The catalytic residues of the three RuvC domains are labelled. LbCpf1RuvC, SaCas9RuvC and SpyCas9RuvC domains are coloured in grey, green and cyan, respectively.

Extended Data Figure 2 Structural comparison of the LbCpf1-bound crRNA and the SpyCas9-bound sgRNA.

Shown are the structures of LbCpf1-bound crRNA (left) and the SpyCas9-bound sgRNA (PDB, 4UN3) (right).

Extended Data Figure 3 The direct repeat sequence of crRNA binds LbCpf1.

a, crRNA in the crystal remains intact. Crystals of the LbCpf1–crRNA complex were collected and the integrity of crRNA was checked by denaturing TBE-urea (10%) polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and stained by ethidium bromide. b, A crRNA lacking the guide sequence (crRNA*) binds LbCpf1. Data shown here are representative of three independent microscale thermophoresis experiments and the errors were calculated as standard deviation. c, crRNA* inhibits crRNA-guided LbCpf1 endonuclease activity in vitro. 0.8 μg crRNA and 3 μg purified LbCpf1 protein were mixed with varying amount of crRNA*. 1 μg dsDNA was then added to the mixture that was pre-incubated at 37 °C for 10 min. The nucleotides were analysed by running the mixture on TBE-urea polyacrylamide gels (10%) and visualized by ethidium bromide staining. Non-target strand sequence: 5′-TCGGTGCGGGCCTCTTCGCTATTACGCCAGCTGGCGA AAGGGGGATGTGCTGCAAGGCGATTAAGTTGGGTAACGCCAGGGTTTTCCCAGTCACGACGTTGTAAAACGACGGCCAGTGCCAAGCTTGCATGCCTGCAGGTCGACTCTAGAGGATCCTTTAGAGAAGTCATTTAATAAGGCCACTGTTAAAAAGCTTGGCGTAATCAGAATTCGTAATCATGGTCATAGCTGTTTCCTGTGTGAAATTGTTATCCGCTCACAATTCCACACAACATACGAGCCGGAAGCATAAA-3′.

Extended Data Figure 4 Sequence alignment of Cpf1 proteins from different species.

Sequence alignment of Cpf1 proteins from different species. Conserved and similar residues are highlighted with red and yellow grounds respectively. Residues of LbCpf1 involved in crRNA interaction are indicated with slate solid dots at bottom. α-helices and β-strands are shown as curly and arrow symbols, respectively. Protein domains identified in the structure are indicated.

Extended Data Figure 5 crRNA binding triggers dramatic structure rearrangement of LbCpf1.

a, crRNA binding induces no oligomerization of LbCpf1 in sedimentation-velocity analytical ultracentrifugation. The peak sedimentation coefficients and the calculated molecular weights for LbCpf1 in the absence (blue) and presence (red) of crRNA are indicated. The frictional coefficient ratios for LbCpf1 and LbCpf1–crRNA are 2.19 and 1.89, respectively. b, crRNA binding renders LbCpf1 more resistant to trypsin. The full-length LbCpf1 protein was treated with trypsin in the absence or presence of crRNA or crRNA* for 30 min. The samples were then subjected to SDS–PAGE analysis. crRNA*, crRNA with the guide sequence deleted. c, Negative staining electron microscopy analysis of LbCpf1 and LbCpf1–crRNA complexes. Left, representative raw micrographs of negative-stained LbCpf1 (top) and LbCpf1–crRNA complex (bottom) samples. Right, representative 2D class averages of negatively stained particles of LbCpf1 (top) and LbCpf1–crRNA complex (bottom) samples.

Extended Data Figure 6 LHD is stabilized by interaction with LbCpf1 from a different asymmetric unit.

LHD is involved in crystal packing in the LbCpf1–crRNA crystals. Shown in the figure are the LbCpf1–crRNA structures from two neighbouring asymmetric units. The LHD and UK domains of LbCpf1 are shown in magenta and slate, respectively. Packing between the LHD from one asymmetric unit and the UK domain from a neighbouring asymmetric unit is marked with the red dashed circle.

Extended Data Figure 7 A LHD-truncated LbCpf1 protein retains high binding affinity with crRNA.

Data shown are representatives of three independent microscale thermophoresis experiments; error bars, s.d.

Extended Data Figure 8 The interactions of 5′ end of crRNA with LbCpf1.

Detailed interactions of sugar-phosphate backbone of crRNA with LbCpf1 OBD. The residues from OBD responsible for LbCpf1 crRNA cleavage activity are labelled and shown in aquamarine.

Extended Data Figure 9 A model of crRNA-guided LbCpf1 activation.

a, A model of LbCpf1 activation triggered by crRNA. The apo state LbCpf1 is maintained in an expended conformation. LbCpf1 is switched into a substrate-binding state through structural rearrangement trigger by crRNA binding to the OBD of LbCpf1. Then substrate DNA binds to LbCpf1 with the involvement of the LHD and base pairs with the LbCpf1-bound crRNA, resulting in endonuclease cleavage of the dsDNA. b, A model of non-target and target DNA (shown in green) bound to LbCpf1. Individual LbCpf1 domains are coloured according to the scheme in a, crRNA is shown in cartoon and coloured in orange.

Extended Data Table 1 Data collection, phasing and refinement statistics

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure

This file contains the uncropped scans, with size marker indications, for Figure 4d and Extended Data Figures 3a, c and 5b. (PDF 283 kb)

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Dong, D., Ren, K., Qiu, X. et al. The crystal structure of Cpf1 in complex with CRISPR RNA. Nature 532, 522–526 (2016).

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