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CRISPR-Cpf1, an alternative to Cas9 for targeting AT-rich genomes

Alt-R® CRISPR-Cpf1 reagents expand regions available for genome editing

CRISPR genome editing has revolutionized genomics research over the past few years, largely facilitated by the CRISPR associated (Cas) enzyme, Cas9. However, occasionally researchers performing genome editing are confronted with a narrow target region that lacks suitable Cas9 protospacer adjacent motifs (PAMs). S. pyogenes Cas9, which is the most frequently used CRISPR enzyme for genome editing, does not efficiently cleave target sequences without its PAM site, NGG [1,2]. Thus, functional target sites may be limited or even non-existent in sequences with low GC content. This poses a significant technical obstacle for editing in AT-rich regions.

Cpf1, a CRISPR endonuclease that recognizes an AT-rich PAM

Cpf1 (also known as Cas12a), a putative class II CRISPR endonuclease recently identified and characterized in Prevotella and Francisella [3], potentially overcomes some of the Cas9 enzyme shortcomings, such as its G-rich PAM requirement. Cpf1 endonuclease from IDT is derived from Acidaminococcus sp. BV3L6. It recognizes a T-rich PAM, TTTV, and creates a staggered, double-stranded DNA cut with a 5′ overhang. By including Cpf1 in one’s genome editing toolbox, researchers greatly expand the number of target sites available for editing. Not only is this enzyme useful for targeting AT-rich genomes, such as that of Plasmodium falcipracum, but it also has applications in altering disease or phenotype-linked mutations in AT-rich regions through homology-directed repair. In addition, Cpf1 does not require a tracrRNA for function.

Cpf1 can serve as an alternative to Cas9 endonuclease due to its many unique features. However, Cpf1 presents its own challenges. Unlike S. pyogenes Cas9, which cleaves most NGG PAM sites to some degree, Cpf1 exhibits a lower rate of cleavage for the Cpf1 PAM sequence. Here we summarize a few findings made by researchers at IDT that provide guidance for improving Cpf1 editing efficiency in your own experiments.

Maximize editing efficacy of Cpf1 by using TTTV rather than TTTT as the PAM site

Cpf1 editing efficacy is PAM-sequence dependent [3]. IDT scientists conducted a comprehensive study that investigated the correlation between choice of Cpf1 PAM sites and final editing efficacy. We tested 1240 crRNAs targeting 22 human genes, and found that TTTV PAM sequences (TTTA, TTTC or TTTG) direct DNA cleavage more robustly in comparison to those with TTTT PAM sequences (Figure 1). It is important to include this principle in your experimental design since, for example, the TTTT motif is significantly more prevalent in the human genome in comparison to its 3 other TTTN counterparts (Figure 2).

A. Cpf1 PAM TTTN motif targeted in exons of 22 human genes.

B. Cpf1 PAM TTTN motif targeted in 64 sites of human BCAT gene.

Figure 1. Cpf1 genome editing efficacy increases with the use of TTTV PAM sites. The dots represent individual PAM sites ranked by increasing editing activities. (A) TTTN sites from 22 human gene exons were used to design 1240 Alt-R® CRISPR-Cpf1 crRNAs. HEK-293 cells were transfected with ribonucleoprotein (RNP: Alt-R A.s. Cpf1 Nuclease 2NLS complexed with Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 crRNA). Editing efficiency was determined 48 hr after elecroporation using the Alt-R Genome Editing Detection Kit, which provides the major components required for T7E1 endonuclease assays. (B) 64 TTTN sites in the human BCAT gene were targeted by Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 crRNAs. HEK-293 cells were transfected with RNP as instructed in the Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 User Guide—RNP electroporation, Amaxa® Nucleofector® system (available at www.idtdna.com/CRISPR-Cpf1). Editing efficiency was determined 48 hr after electroporation using the Alt-R Cpf1 Genome Editing Detection Kit.

Figure 2. The frequency of TTTN motifs across chromosomes in the human genome. The 4 TTTN motifs and their reverse complements are counted and plotted for each individual human chromosome. The TTTT motif, which is not an effective PAM sequence for A.s. Cpf1, occurs much more frequently than the other 3 motifs (TTTA, TTTC, and TTTG), which are the recommended PAM sequences for A.s. Cpf1. 

Enable efficient Cpf1 RNP delivery by including Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer

Cell delivery of Cpf1 endonuclease appears to be more difficult than for S. pyogenes Cas9. We have yet to identify a transfection reagent that provides robust lipofection of Cpf1 RNPs in most of the cell lines we tested. However, electroporation that includes the Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer serves as an effective alternative for Cpf1 RNP delivery to cultured cells. The Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer is a Cpf1-specific, non-targeting, single-stranded carrier DNA, optimized to work with the Amaxa® Nucleofector® technology (Lonza) and the Neon® Transfection System (Thermo Fisher). It provides increased transfection efficiency, and therefore, increased genome editing efficacy. The Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer is computationally designed to be void of sequence homology to human, mouse, and rat genomes. The effectiveness of this reagent has been tested in multiple cell lines derived from major model organisms, including HEK-293, Jurkat, HeLa, and Hep1-6; although, the level of improvement in editing efficiency may vary by cell type. Figure 3 shows targeting of 2 sites in the human and mouse HPRT genes. Their total editing efficiency was compared between groups with or without the addition of the Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer. The data clearly indicate that Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer is necessary for efficient Cpf1-mediated editing in RNP electroporation experiments.

Figure 3. Alt-R® Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer is required for efficient CRISPR-Cpf1 editing in RNP electroporation experiments. Mouse Hepa1-6 cells and human HEK-293 cells were transfected with 5 µM RNP (Alt-R A.s. Cpf1 Nuclease 2NLS complexed with Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 crRNA) as instructed in the Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 User Guide—RNP electroporation, Neon® system (available at www.idtdna.com/CRISPR-Cpf1). Electroporation reactions contained either no (dark blue) or 1.8 µM (light blue) Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer. Genomic DNA was isolated 48 hr after electroporation, and total editing efficiency was determined using the Alt-R Genome Editing Detection Kit.

Use of the Alt-R Genome Editing Detection Kit to precisely assess total editing efficiency of CRISPR-Cpf1

As a simple and fast detection method, the T7EI mismatch endonuclease assay has been widely used to estimate genome editing efficiency in CRISPR experiments [4,5]. T7 endonuclease effectively targets and digests mismatched heteroduplex DNA, which results from annealing DNA strands that undergo CRISPR-mediated modifications to a wide-type DNA strand. Assay results are analyzed by visualizing cleavage products and full-length amplicons by gel or capillary electrophoresis.

However, T7 endonuclease is less robust in recognizing single-base mismatches [5]. Previously, we have shown that the T7EI assay underestimates the efficiency of genome editing mediated by CRISPR-Cas9, when compared to next-generation sequencing (NGS) approach, which captures all editing events regardless of type [6]. Interestingly, in Cpf1 edited samples, the editing efficiencies estimated by T7EI are much closer to the corresponding NGS results, suggesting that T7EI is more accurate in quantifying on-target genome editing events for CRISPR-Cpf1 (Figure 4).

A. Cpf1 genome editing assessed by NGS and T7E1 assays (8 PAM sites in the human HPRT gene).

B. Cas9 genome editing assessed by NGS and T7E1 assays (3 PAM sites across each of 4 human genes).

Figure 4. Genome editing efficiency estimated by T7EI assay parallel NGS results in Cpf1 edited samples. (A) Alt-R® CRISPR-Cpf1 crRNAs (30 nM) were introduced by lipofection into HEK-293 cells that constitutively express A.s. Cpf1 nuclease. 8 PAM sites in the human HPRT gene were targeted. To assess editing efficiency, genomic DNA samples were harvested 48 hr after transfection and tested using the Alt-R Genome Editing Detection Kit (dark blue bars). The same DNA samples were also analyzed using targeted NGS (light blue bars). Amplicons were run on a MiSeq® system (Illumina) and sequencing data were analyzed using a proprietary data processing program developed in-house. Error bars represent standard deviation for triplicate lipofection experiments. The correlation coefficient for the two analysis is shown as the R value. (B) Alt-R CRISPR-Cas9 crRNA (30 nM) were introduced by lipofection into HEK-293 cells that stably express S. pyogenes Cas9 nuclease. 3 PAM sites were targeted in each of the 4 genes, BCAT, ALDH2, BIRC5, and AR. Similar to the experiment described in Figure 4A, genomic DNA was isolated 48 hr after lipofection, and was tested using both the Alt-R Genome Editing Detection Kit and amplicon sequencing.

What we have learned about CRISPR-Cpf1 genome editing

  • With the ability to recognize T-rich PAM sites, Cpf1 further expands the number of available target sites for genome editing. This feature can be especially useful when design space is limited.
  • When designing CRISPR-Cpf1 experiments, we recommend testing 3 or more crRNAs per target gene. For optimal results, we suggest designing Cpf1 guide RNAs that use TTTV (i.e., TTTA, TTTC, or TTTG) instead of TTTN as the PAM site.
  • Compared to Cas9, which efficiently cleaves DNA when targeted using most potential NGG PAM sites, Cpf1 is less potent in introducing double strand breaks when DNA is targeted using the TTTV PAM sites.
  • The Alt-R Cpf1 Electroporation Enhancer is critical for optimal delivery of Cpf1 RNPs by electroporation and is recommended for experiments using this delivery method. 


  1. Hsu PD, Scott DA, et al. (2013) DNA targeting specificity of RNA-guided Cas9 nucleases. Nat Biotechnol, 31(9):827–832.
  2. Jiang W, Bikard D, et al. (2013) RNA-guided editing of bacterial genomes using CRISPR-Cas systems. Nat Biotechnol, 31(3):233–239.
  3. Zetsche B, Gootenberg JS, et al. (2015) Cpf1 is a single RNA-guided endonuclease of a class 2 CRISPR-Cas system. Cell, 163(3):759–771.
  4. Mean RJ, Pierides A, et al. (2004) Modification of the enzyme mismatch cleavage method using T7 endonuclease I and silver staining. Biotechniques, 36(5):758–760.
  5. Vouillot L, Thelie A, Pollet N. (2015) Comparison of T7E1 and Surveyor mismatch cleavage assays to detect mutations triggered by engineered nucleases. G3 (Bethesda), 5(3):407–415.
  6. Young M. (2017) A simple method to detect on-target editing or measure genome editing efficiency in CRISPR experiments. [Online] Coralville, Integrated DNA Technologies. [Accessed 29 Jun, 2017.]

Product focus—genome editing with Alt-R® CRISPR Reagents

Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 System

The Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 System recognizes an AT-rich PAM site, providing CRISPR target sites that are not available with the CRISPR-Cas9 System. In addition, Cpf1 nuclease produces a staggered cut with a 5′ overhang. These reagents:

  • Enable genome editing in organisms with AT-rich genomes
  • Allow interrogation of additional genomic regions compared to Cas9
  • Require simply complexing the crRNA with the Cpf1 protein—no tracrRNA needed
  • Permit efficient delivery of the RNP into cells by electroporation

Note that Cpf1 reagents are not interchangeable with Cas9 reagents, because of different requirements for PAM sequences and guide RNAs.

Learn more about the Alt-R CRISPR-Cpf1 System.

CRISPR support tools

Additional CRISPR reagents extend the ease-of-use and performance of the Alt-R system through options for fluorescent visualization, enhanced nuclease transfection, and genome editing detection.

Find out more about IDT’s entire line of CRISPR products.

Additional reading

Using CRISPR genome editing for gene knockout and homology-directed repair (HDR)—Webinar review: Watch our webinar recording for expert guidance on a complete CRISPR genome editing workflow, including available tools and protocols. Also, see what we have learned about homology-directed repair and a new option for repair templates.

CRISPR-Cpf1 expands genome editing to new target sites—Webinar summary: Learn how the Alt-R® CRISPR-Cpf1 System can be an effective alternative to CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. See how Cpf1 compares to Cas9 for editing efficiency, and what is the best method for delivering the RNA and protein components to your cells.

The key to successful electroporation in CRISPR genome editing experiments—Product spotlight: The most efficient CRISPR-based genome editing results from delivering CRISPR reagents to cells as ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complexes. Should your cells require electroporation, learn why we recommend using Alt-R electroporation enhancers to increase genome editing efficiency.

A simple method to detect on-target editing or measure genome editing efficiency in CRISPR experiments—Product spotlight: Learn why the Alt-R® Genome Editing Detection Kit, a PCR-based, T7 endonuclease I (T7EI) assay, is the recommended method for CRISPR mutation detection.

Review other DECODED Online newsletter articles on CRISPR in genome editing applications.

You can also browse our DECODED Online newsletter for additional application reviews, lab tips, and citation summaries to facilitate your research.

Author: Brian Wang, PhD, is the Genomic Tools Market Development Manager at IDT.

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