Multiple-gene targeting and mismatch tolerance can confound analysis of genome-wide pooled CRISPR screens

Research paper by Jean-Philippe Fortin, Jenille Tan, Karen E. Gascoigne, Peter M. Haverty, William F. Forrest, Michael R. Costa, Scott E. Martin

Indexed on: 25 Jan '19Published on: 25 Jan '19Published in: Genome Biology


Genome-wide loss-of-function screens using the CRISPR/Cas9 system allow the efficient discovery of cancer cell vulnerabilities. While several studies have focused on correcting for DNA cleavage toxicity biases associated with copy number alterations, the effects of sgRNAs co-targeting multiple genomic loci in CRISPR screens have not been discussed.In this work, we analyze CRISPR essentiality screen data from 391 cancer cell lines to characterize biases induced by multi-target sgRNAs. We investigate two types of multi-targets: on-targets predicted through perfect sequence complementarity and off-targets predicted through sequence complementarity with up to two nucleotide mismatches. We find that the number of on-targets and off-targets both increase sgRNA activity in a cell line-specific manner and that existing additive models of gene knockout effects fail at capturing genetic interactions that may occur between co-targeted genes. We use synthetic lethality between paralog genes to show that genetic interactions can introduce biases in essentiality scores estimated from multi-target sgRNAs. We further show that single-mismatch tolerant sgRNAs can confound the analysis of gene essentiality and lead to incorrect co-essentiality functional networks. Lastly, we also find that single nucleotide polymorphisms located in protospacer regions can impair on-target activity as a result of mismatch tolerance.We show the impact of multi-target effects on estimating cancer cell dependencies and the impact of off-target effects caused by mismatch tolerance in sgRNA-DNA binding.