Prime editing is a new class of mammalian cell genome editing technology that enables unprecedented precision in the installation of specific substitutions, insertions, and deletions into the genome1, offering greater versatility than CRISPR nucleases2,3,4 and base editors5,6. The most efficient prime editing system described to date (referred to as PE3) consists of three components: a fusion protein of a CRISPR-Cas9 nickase and an engineered reverse transcriptase (RT), a prime editing guide RNA (pegRNA), and a nicking sgRNA (ngRNA) (Supp. Fig. 1). The pegRNA targets the Cas9 nickase-RT fusion to a specific genomic locus, but also hybridizes to the nicked single-stranded DNA non-target strand (NTS) within the Cas9-induced R-loop, and serves as a template for reverse transcription to create the “flap” that mediates induction of precise genetic changes (Supp. Fig. 1a-c). The ngRNA directs the Cas9 nickase-RT fusion to nick the target strand (i.e. the strand opposite the flap) and thereby biases repair towards the desired change encoded in the flap (Supp. Fig. 1d-e).
The complexity of the PE3 system makes it time-consuming to manually design the required pegRNA and ngRNA components. Beyond the need to design the spacer for both guide RNAs, there are multiple other parameters that must be accounted for that can impact prime editing efficiencies, including: primer binding site (PBS) length, reverse transcription template (RTT) length, and distance between the pegRNA and ngRNA. Here we present PrimeDesign, a user-friendly web application (http://primedesign.pinellolab.org/) (Fig. 1) and command-line tool (https://github.com/pinellolab/PrimeDesign) that automates and thereby simplifies the design of pegRNAs and ngRNAs for single edits, combination edits, and genome-wide and saturation mutagenesis screens.
PrimeDesign uses a single input that encodes both the original reference and the desired edited sequences (Fig. 1a, Supp. Note 1), recommends a candidate pegRNA and ngRNA combination to install the edit of interest (Fig. 1b, Supp. Fig. 2, Supp. Note 2), provides sequence visualization of the prime editing event and predicted pegRNA secondary structures (Fig. 1c), and enumerates all possible pegRNA spacers, pegRNA extensions, and ngRNAs within optimized parameter ranges (previously defined by the Liu group1) for installing the desired edit (Fig. 1d). PrimeDesign enables users to rank pegRNAs based on their predicted specificity (CFD score7), provides important annotations for pegRNA (e.g. PAM disruption) and ngRNA (e.g. PE3b) designs, and streamlines the incorporation of PAM-disrupting silent mutations to improve editing efficiency and product purity (Supp. Note 3). In addition, PrimeDesign enables the pooled design of pegRNA and ngRNA combinations for genome-wide and saturation mutagenesis screens (http://primedesign.pinellolab.org/pooled), and ranks the designs according to best design practices1. The saturation mutagenesis feature allows for the introduction of mutations at single-base or single-amino acid resolution; PrimeDesign automatically constructs all edits within a user-defined sequence range and generates the designs to install these edits (Supp. Note 4).
To illustrate the utility of PrimeDesign, we took pathogenic human genetic variants from ClinVar8 (n= 69,481) and designed candidate pegRNAs and ngRNAs for the correction of these pathogenic alleles. Of these pathogenic variants, we found that 91.7% are targetable by at least a single pegRNA spacer with a maximum RTT length of 34 nt (Fig. 2a and Supp. Table 1). An average of 3.7 pegRNA spacers were designed per pathogenic variant, representing multiple options for prime editing to correct each variant. Furthermore, 25.9% of targetable pathogenic variants included at least a single pegRNA that disrupts the PAM sequence, which has been associated with improved editing efficiency and product purity. The PE3b strategy (the design of ngRNAs that preferentially nick the non-edited strand after edited strand flap resolution) is viable for 79.5% of targetable variants (59.7% when only considering mismatches in the seed sequence) (Fig. 2b). Lastly, 11.9% of targetable pathogenic variants are amenable to both the PAM-disrupting and PE3b seed-mismatched strategies.
To make all of these ClinVar prime editing designs more accessible, we constructed PrimeVar (http://primedesign.pinellolab.org/primevar), a comprehensive and searchable database for pegRNA and ngRNA combinations to install or correct >68,500 pathogenic human genetic variants. Using either the dbSNP reference SNP number (rs#) or ClinVar Variation ID, candidate pegRNAs and ngRNAs are readily-available across a range of PBS (10-17 nt) and RTT (10-80 nt) lengths.
Lastly, we tested recommended pegRNA and ngRNA combinations from PrimeDesign to install 20 different human pathogenic variants associated with genetic diseases including hemophilia A, Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), MPS I and II, and Fabry disease in HEK293T cells (Fig. 3a, Supp. Table 2, Supp. Note 2). We observed installation of the desired edit at mean frequencies of 10% or more for 7 of the 20 (35%) target sites and at mean frequencies of 1% - 10% for 6 of the 20 (30%) target sites. For a subset of seven of the desired mutations, we designed additional pegRNAs to assess differences between PE3 and PE3b (Fig. 3b). Generally, we observed mixed trends in the frequencies of the desired edit and a modest reduction in byproducts for PE3b relative to PE3. Lastly, we designed a subset of four additional pegRNAs that introduced PAM-disrupting silent mutations (in addition to the target pathogenic variant) and found that these designs resulted in a mean 1.8-fold increase in the frequency of the desired edit (Fig. 3c).
In summary, PrimeDesign is a comprehensive and general method for facile and automated design of pegRNAs and ngRNAs. Our test of pegRNAs and ngRNAs designed by PrimeDesign to create various edits shows that not all designs yield the desired alterations with high frequencies, therefore, users of PrimeDesign may still need to refine pegRNA choices even after testing initial recommendations. Nonetheless, PrimeDesign should greatly simplify the complicated process of designing candidate prime editing components and thereby increase the use of and accessibility to this powerful and important technology9,10,11.