This year's Illumina™ Emerging Researcher Award has been received by Dr Simon Jackson, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Fineran Lab. The award is designed by illumina™ and the Queenstown Research Week to recognise and acknowledge an emerging researcher (less than 5 years post-PhD) who uses molecular biology tools in New Zealand.
Simon obtained his PhD from the University of Otago, focusing on elucidating the structural and functional basis for the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis. His thesis was officially recognised the the University as being of exceptional quality. Simon joined Associate Professor Peter Fineran's lab in 2015, after a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry, and has since made several novel findings that advance knowledge of CRISPR-Cas function.
Simon will give a talk and receive the award at the Queenstown Molecular Biology (QMB) Meeting in September.
CRISPR-Cas systems are adaptive immune defences found in bacteria and archaea. They function as sequence-specific nucleases, which can identify and destroy viral (phage) infections and invading mobile genetic elements (MGEs). CRISPR-Cas systems typically consist of CRISPR loci and CRISPR-associated (Cas) genes. CRISPR loci (arrays) store genetic memories of prior invaders, in the form of ‘spacers’. Spacer sequences determine immune specificity. Thus, immunity can be updated by the addition of new spacers – a process termed ‘CRISPR adaptation’. CRISPR adaptation represents the first major step in CRISPR-Cas defence. Next, CRISPR arrays are transcribed and processed to generate CRISPR-RNAs (crRNAs), which complex with Cas proteins. The resulting Cas-crRNA surveillance complexes utilise the crRNAs to facilitate sequence-specific recognition of cognate nucleic acids. Once identified, targets are destroyed by Cas nuclease activity. Phage and MGE variants, with genetic mutations, can escape/evade sequence-specific recognition and destruction by host CRISPR-Cas defences. Therefore, a perpetual arms race exists between hosts and invader evolution. The fundamental principal of all CRISPR-Cas systems is adaptation – hosts must update their immunity to respond to new and divergent threats. Many CRISPR-Cas systems respond to phage and MGE escape mutants by stimulating CRISPR adaptation (i.e. increasing the host’s spacer repertoire). The resulting diversity in CRISPR loci, both the number and sequence of spacers, is important for assuring effective immunity in individual hosts and populations. In my awards talk at the Queenstown Molecular Biology meeting, I will discuss our recent discovery of a new pathway that pre-emptively stimulates CRISPR adaptation, before escape mutants are encountered.