Site-specific genetic and epigenetic targeting of distinct cell populations is a central goal in molecular neuroscience and is crucial to understand the gene regulatory mechanisms that underlie complex phenotypes and behaviors. While recent technological advances have enabled unprecedented control over gene expression, many of these approaches are focused on selected model organisms and/or require labor-intensive customizations for different applications. The simplicity and modularity of CRISPR-based systems have transformed this aspect of genome editing, providing a variety of possible applications and targets. However, there are currently few available tools for cell-selective CRISPR regulation in neurons. Here, we optimized a CRISPR activation (CRISPRa) system for Cre recombinase-dependent, cell type-specific targeting. Unexpectedly, CRISPR systems based on a traditional double-floxed inverted open reading frame (DIO) strategy exhibited leaky target gene induction in the absence of Cre. Therefore, we developed an intron-containing Cre-dependent CRISPRa system (SVI-DIO-dCas9-VPR) that alleviated leaky gene induction and outperformed the traditional DIO system at endogenous genes in both HEK293T cells and rat primary neuron cultures. Using gene-specific CRISPR sgRNAs, we demonstrate that SVI-DIO-dCas9-VPR can activate highly inducible genes (GRM2 and Tent5b) as well as moderately inducible genes (Sstr2 and Gadd45b) in a Cre-specific manner. These results provide a robust framework for Cre-dependent CRISPR-dCas9 approaches across different model systems, and will enable cell-specific targeting when combined with common Cre driver lines or Cre delivery via viral vectors.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience