The CRISPR spacer space is dominated by sequences from species-specific mobilomes

Sergey A. Shmakov, Vassilii Sitnik, Kira S. Makarova, Yuri I. Wolf, Konstantin V. Severinov, Eugene V. Koonin

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    115 Citations (Scopus)


    Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein (CRISPR-Cas) systems store the memory of past encounters with foreign DNA in unique spacers that are inserted between direct repeats in CRISPR arrays. For only a small fraction of the spacers, homologous sequences, called protospacers, are detectable in viral, plasmid, and microbial genomes. The rest of the spacers remain the CRISPR “dark matter.” We performed a comprehensive analysis of the spacers from all CRISPR-cas loci identified in bacterial and archaeal genomes, and we found that, depending on the CRISPR-Cas subtype and the prokaryotic phylum, protospacers were detectable for 1% to about 19% of the spacers (~7% global average). Among the detected protospacers, the majority, typically 80 to 90%, originated from viral genomes, including proviruses, and among the rest, the most common source was genes that are integrated into microbial chromosomes but are involved in plasmid conjugation or replication. Thus, almost all spacers with identifiable protospacers target mobile genetic elements (MGE). The GC content, as well as dinucleotide and tetranucleotide compositions, of microbial genomes, their spacer complements, and the cognate viral genomes showed a nearly perfect correlation and were almost identical. Given the near absence of self-targeting spacers, these findings are most compatible with the possibility that the spacers, including the dark matter, are derived almost completely from the species-specific microbial mobi-lomes. IMPORTANCE The principal function of CRISPR-Cas systems is thought to be protection of bacteria and archaea against viruses and other parasitic genetic elements. The CRISPR defense function is mediated by sequences from parasitic elements, known as spacers, that are inserted into CRISPR arrays and then transcribed and employed as guides to identify and inactivate the cognate parasitic genomes. However, only a small fraction of the CRISPR spacers match any sequences in the current databases, and of these, only a minority correspond to known parasitic elements. We show that nearly all spacers with matches originate from viral or plasmid genomes that are either free or have been integrated into the host genome. We further demonstrate that spacers with no matches have the same properties as those of identifiable origins, strongly suggesting that all spacers originate from mobile elements.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere01397-17
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2017


    • Bacteriophages
    • CRISPR-Cas
    • Mobilome
    • Oligonucleotide composition
    • Spacer acquisition


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