Bioinformatic evidence of widespread priming in type I and II CRISPR-Cas systems

Thomas J. Nicholson, Simon A. Jackson, Bradley I. Croft, Raymond H.J. Staals, Peter C. Fineran, Chris M. Brown*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


CRISPR-Cas systems provide bacteria and archaea with adaptive immunity against invading genetic elements, such as plasmids, bacteriophages and archaeal viruses. They consist of cas genes and CRISPR loci, which store genetic memories of previously encountered invaders as short sequences termed spacers. Spacers determine the specificity of CRISPR-Cas defence and immunity can be gained or updated by the addition of new spacers into CRISPR loci. There are two main routes to spacer acquisition, which are known as naïve and primed CRISPR adaptation. Naïve CRISPR adaptation involves the de novo formation of immunity, independent of pre-existing spacers. In contrast, primed CRISPR adaptation (priming) uses existing spacers to enhance the acquisition of new spacers. Priming typically results in spacer acquisition from locations near the site of target recognition by the existing (priming) spacer. Primed CRISPR adaptation has been observed in several type I CRISPR-Cas systems and it is potentially widespread. However, experimental evidence is unavailable for some subtypes, and for most systems, priming has only been shown in a small number of hosts. There is also no current evidence of priming by other CRISPR-Cas types. Here, we used a bioinformatic approach to search for evidence of priming in diverse CRISPR-Cas systems. By analysing the clustering of spacers acquired from phages, prophages and archaeal viruses, including strand and directional biases between subsequently acquired spacers, we demonstrate that two patterns of primed CRISPR adaptation dominate in type I systems. In addition, we find evidence of a priming-like pathway in type II CRISPR-Cas systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-576
JournalRNA Biology
Issue number4
Early online date18 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2019


  • adaptation
  • adaptive immunity
  • CRISPR-Cas
  • primed
  • priming
  • spacer acquisition

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