The Design and Development of Artificial Zinc Finger Transcription Factors and Zinc Finger Nucleases to the hTERT Locus




Wilson, Kimberly Anne

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The ability to direct hTERT expression through genetic control or tunable regulatory factors would advance our understanding of the transcriptional regulation of hTERT, and also potentially produce new strategies for addressing telomerase-associated disease. In this work, we describe the engineering of artificial zinc finger transcription factors (ZFTFs) and zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) to target sequences at the hTERT promoter. We first explored expansions to the repertoire of sites that can be targeted by ZFNs and modifications of ZFN architecture to accommodate such sites. A ZFN is made of a zinc-finger DNA binding domain (ZFP) linked to the FokI nuclease domain by a short amino acid “inter-domain linker”. The general sequence motif of a ZFN target is 5’-(ZFN site1)-(6 bp spacer)-(ZFN site2)-3’ and each half-site is 5’-GNNGNNGNN-3’. Variations of this motif come in the forms of variable spacer lengths, extra basepairs in-between triplets, and the inclusion of non-GNN triplets. To explore these types of target sites, we created ZFN variants that contained different inter-domain linkers, lengthened inter-finger linkers, and DNA binding domains created through hybridizing the modular assembly and OPEN methodologies. We show that through altering ZFN architecture, target sites with 5-7-bp spacers and those with ANN, CNN, and TNN triplets can be efficiently recognized and cut by ZFNs. We then generated new ZFPs to five ZFN target sites with 5- or 6-bp spacers in the hTERT locus based on those findings and made ZFTFs by linking the ZFPs to the VP16 transcriptional activation domain. We were able to identify several active ZFTFs that demonstrate a dose-dependent response. The same ZFPs were also converted into ZFNs and screened in combinatorial pairs in cell-based single-strand annealing assays and gene targeting assays. These screening strategies have pinpointed several ZFN pairs that may be useful in genomic editing of the hTERT locus. Our findings provide guidelines for modifying ZFP architecture to a wider array of potential target sites for use in developing ZFTFs and ZFNs at the hTERT promoter, which may be applicable towards inheritable, telomerase-based diseases and answering basic science questions about hTERT transcriptional regulation.

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