In many prokaryotes, noncoding RNAs that arise from the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) loci are now thought to mediate defense against viruses and other molecular invaders by an RNAi-like pathway. CRISPR loci contain multiple short regions of similarity to invader sequences separated by short repeat sequences, and are associated with resistance to infection by corresponding viruses. It is hypothesized that RNAs derived from these regions, termed prokaryotic silencing (psi) RNAs, guide Slicer-like complexes of partner proteins to destroy invader nucleic acids. Here we have investigated CRISPR-derived RNAs in the archaeon Pyrococcus furiosus. Northern analysis revealed multiple RNA species consistent with a proposed biogenesis pathway that includes full-length CRISPR locus transcripts and intermediates generated by endonucleolytic cleavages within the repeat sequences. However, our results identify the principal products of the CRISPR loci as small psiRNAs comprised primarily of invader-targeting sequence with perhaps only 5-10 nucleotides of CRISPR repeat sequence. These RNAs are the most abundant CRISPR RNA species in P. furiosus and are likely the guides for the effector complexes of the proposed prokaryotic RNAi (pRNAi) system. We analyzed cell-free extracts fractionated under non-denaturing conditions and found that the various CRISPR RNA species are components of distinct RNA-protein complexes, including at least two complexes that contain mature-length psiRNAs. Finally, RNAs are produced from all seven CRISPR loci present in the P. furiosus genome, and interestingly, the most recently acquired psiRNAs encoded proximal to the leader sequence of a CRISPR locus appear to be the most abundant.
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